What is OSHA? What Employers Need to Know

Occupational Safety and Health Act and Your Business

OSHA Regulations
OSHA Regulations. Vladimir Godnik/Getty Images

 If you have employees in your business, you need to know about OSHA. The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA) requires employers to keep their work environments safe for workers. The Act is administered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), within the Department of Labor.

Does OSHA Apply to My Business? 

Any business with one or more employees must comply with OSHA regulations.

That means anyone you give a paycheck to, but not independent contractors or freelancers. OSHA doesn't cover self-employed business owners, but it does include the spouse of a business if they receive a paycheck. 

If your small business had 10 or fewer employees during the last year, you don't have to file injury or illness reports, but you still must comply with all other OSHA regulations. 

OSHA Federal and State Laws

OSHA is a federal law, but some states have their own OSHA laws. These state laws take precedence over the federal law. To find which law controls your state, check out this chart showing state-approved OSHA plans. If your state is not on the list, it is controlled by federal regulations.

OSHA Requirements for Employers

OSHA affects your business in several ways: 

Poster. Your business must have an OSHA-compliant poster displayed in a prominent place to Inform workers of their rights under OSHA.

There are regulations on what information must be included on the poster. Look on this OSHA Posters page of the OSHA regulations for the "It's the Law" poster.

Hazardous Substances. You must provide workers with information on identifying hazardous substances in the workplace and training on how to treat injuries from these substances.Hazardous substances come in all shapes and sizes.

Many substances that you might not think are hazardous are included.

Think of substances that might cause injury to an employee or illness. Even in a typical office, where you wouldn't think there were hazardous substances, some can still be found. For example, cleaning supplies, anything flammable, or anything with bleach in it, are considered hazardous substances.  

All hazardous substances will have Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), prepared by the manufacturer. Look on the label for the name of the manufacturer to obtain the MSDS for these products. You must obtain these sheets from the manufacturers, keep them in a place where employees can find and refer to them, and train employees on how to read them to find information on treating injuries.

First Aid/Blood-borne Pathogens Blood-borne pathogens are diseases that are carried through human blood and other bodily fluids. The HIV, Hepatitis B, and Hepatitis C viruses are the most common blood-borne pathogens.

You must give workers with information on first aid procedures, and protection against blood-borne pathogens in the workplace. Blood-borne pathogens training is required for workers who have "occupational exposure" to these blood-borne pathogens (such as medical workers, emergency workers, and others), but should also be given to all workers, so they know how to deal with blood-borne pathogens in case of an emergency.

Fire/Egress/Emergencies Provide workers with training on how to deal with fires and other emergencies, including means of egress (getting out of buildings safely) and use of firefighting equipment. OSHA has an Emergency Exit Routes Fact Sheet to help you understand the requirements and make decisions on the best exit routes for your business.  

Reporting Requirements. Employers must report incidents, including fatalities, to the nearest OSHA office. Read more about reporting requirements

The Most Important Part of OSHA: Employee Training

OSHA requires that you create an emergency action plan and that you set up an OSHA training program to train all employees in all aspects of the plan.OSHA says,

"If you have 10 or fewer employees, you may communicate your plan orally. If you have more than 10 employees, however, your plan must be written, kept in the workplace, and available for employee review."

What OSHA training must include

1. Training in hazardous substances, including how to read MSDS's and how to handle incidents. 

2. Training in blood-borne pathogens. If your employees are exposed to blood-borne pathogens in more than usual circumstances (a medical office, for example), additional training may be required.

3. Training in what to do in emergency situations, including training in how to exit the building. 

4. Training in what to do if an OSHA inspector comes to your workplace. 

OSHA Can Inspect Your Business: Are You Ready? 

The OSHA regulations allow for inspections of businesses. An inspection may be unannounced or it could be scheduled. It could be a routine inspection of businesses in your area, or as a result of an employee complaint. You have a right to accompany the OSHA inspector during the inspection or to have a representative be present at the inspection.

The inspector has a right to inspect all areas of your business for possible violations, not just the area of a complaint. Be sure to take lots of photos of any complaint areas, so you can document them, and document any improvements you might make.

There is a process for complaints and for showing work done to make improvements required by the inspectors. Include information about inspections in your employee training program

Whistleblower Protection and OSHA 

The Whistleblower Protection Act requires that employers not take action against employees (whistleblowers) who file complaints alleging OSHA violations.

For more information about OSHA regulations, go to the Department of Labor OSHA Law and Regulations site.