The Occupation Safety and Health (OSH) Act of 1970 introduced a series of new safety standards into the American workplace.
Many people don't realize that before the passage of this piece of legislation, there were relatively few safety requirements for U.S. employers. Many workers jeopardized their physical well-being every time they clocked in for a shift.
Throughout much of the 20th century, systems of mass production dominated the mentality of the U.S. workplace. Eager to scrape out more and more revenue, employers focused on mechanized means of production, paying little attention to the health and safety of the workers on the shop floor. One of the sad realities of this era is that it was less costly for employers to replace a dead or injured employee than it was for them to introduce meaningful safety mechanisms.
One of the primary accomplishments of the OSH Act was the creation of OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration). This agency oversees health and safety in the American workplace and is tasked with enforcing compliance with OSH legislation. But the OSH Act also included specific mandates for U.S. employers, many of which affect typical small business employers today.
Specifically, the OSH Act was created to "assure so far as possible every working man and woman in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions and to preserve our human resources." This essentially gave the federal government sweeping powers to regulate the working conditions for the majority of the nation's businesses. Certain workplaces were excluded (e.g. self-employed individuals, family farms, etc.), but even federal agencies like the U.S. Postal Service were required to comply with its provisions.
Articles contained within the OSH Act address issues such as reporting requirements, retaliation against employees, and permission for states to enact their own safety and health legislation. However, the meat of the legislation is found in the "general duty clause" contained in Section 5. The general duty clause mandates three specific requirements for employers.
Under Section 5, employers must:
- Maintain conditions or adopt practices reasonably necessary and appropriate to protect workers on the job.
- Be familiar with and comply with standards applicable to their establishments.
- Ensure that employees have and use personal protective equipment when required for safety and health.
To ensure compliance, OSHA has developed specific guidelines that describe when it can use the general duty clause to take action against an employer. For more information, visit the OSHA website at www.osha.gov.