Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Origin of OSHA and their Standards

Where did OSHA come from? The United State Congress, in response to the high number of injuries, illnesses, and fatalities experienced by workers in American workplaces, passed legislation titled the Occupational Safety & Health (OSH) Act of 1970. It was signed into law by the President in December of 1970, and became effective in April of 1971 (and you thought the only thing we had to remember Richard Nixon for was the Watergate scandal). To help implement this new Act, Congress authorized the creation of a new federal agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

All of the States and U.S. territories (such as Puerto Rico, The Virgin Islands, and Guam) were given an option; either participate in the Federal OSHA system, or create their own State OSHA program. However, to get their State OSHA approved by the Fed’s, they had to have safety & health standards at least effective as Federal OSHA’s (most just adopted the Federal standards verbatim). And they also had to extend coverage to their State, municipal, and county workers who were otherwise exempted from coverage by the OSH Act. About half the States and territories have since opted to develop a "State plan" OSHA program. To confuse matters worse, some states have a "hybrid" approach to OSHA, like the State of Tennessee, who has a State OSHA program with jurisdiction over general industry & construction operations, but leaving Federal OSHA with jurisdiction over the martime industry in their state!

You may click here to see a list of State OSHA programs, with a link to their web-sites. Also see our previous blog entry regarding mandatory OSHA posters for Federal & State OSHA programs.

One of Federal OSHA’s first responsibilities as a new agency was to create health and safety standards to regulate workplaces. OSHA separated their standards into several "parts". Some of the major parts of the OSHA regulations are part 1904, which deals with injury & illness record-keeping, part 1910 dealing with general industry workplaces, and part 1926 which pertains to construction. There are also OSHA standards for the various Maritime industries and Agriculture. Each part is then broken down further into sub-parts (based on the letters A through Z), that are based on a particular compliance topic such as Ladders, Machinery Guarding, Excavations, or Hazardous Chemicals. Click the appropriate link to be directed to the Federal OSHA 1910 General Industry standards or the OSHA 1926 Construction standards.

To develop their regulations, OSHA did not sit down and start writing standards from scratch. Instead, they were directed by Congress to adopt as their standards portions of some national "consensus" standards in effect at the time that affected health and safety. So OSHA adopted portions of the National Electric Code (NEC) of 1970, multiple American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standards related to things such as machinery guarding, ladders, and safety glasses, and many, many other consensus standard too numerous to list. So what we originally had for OSHA standards was really a conglomeration of many pieces and parts of a multitude of consensus standards. As you can imagine, this can sometimes make it difficult to seek out and find the precise OSHA standard that actually applies to a specific activity or condition.

One very important thing to remember about the original source documents is that many of them are updated every few years, but the OSHA standards based on them are more than likely STILL based on the older versions of the source standards! That’s because OSHA standards have to go through a very complex and lengthy process to be revised, while consensus standards are routinely reviewed, updated, and published by committees from the organizations who originally created them. As a result, it is not uncommon to have portions of an OSHA regulation that are now obsolete as far as current technology and/or practices are concerned, but they are still the law today.

For OSHA to update an existing standard, or to issue a new one, they must follow a process that involves drafting a proposed standard, publishing it in the Federal Register so the regulated public can review it, and gathering comments about the proposed standard from interested parties. After that process, OSHA may (or may not) issue a final rule in the Federal Register (State OSHA programs have six months to follow suit). The first major standard OSHA developed from scratch and shepherded through this process is their Hazard Communication standard (1910.1200), which became effective in 1984; no wonder this is one of the most cited OSHA standards year after year! Recently, OSHA has employed with some success a strategy called "negotiated rulemaking", where they involve affected groups in developing the draft standard, to speed up the acceptance process.

One last note about OSHA standards in general. You must be aware of which OSHA regulations apply to your workplace! Some of the State OSHA programs have standards that are the same as Federal OSHA’s, some have standards that are just slightly different from Federal OSHA’s, and a couple of States (such as California’s Cal-OSHA and Michigan’s MI-OSHA) have OSHA standards are significantly different from Federal OSHA’s. So make sure you are using the correct "playbook"! You may click here for links to the various State OSHA program regulations.

In a future OSHA blog, we will discuss the OSHA inspection process. In the meantime, please let us know any experiences you’ve had with significantly different State OSHA standards you were not aware of that caused you to receive a citation from your State OSHA program.

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