Employees are one of the most crucial assets of any business irrespective of their size and industry. It is, therefore, essential to safeguard your workforce from occupational hazards, including accidents and illnesses. Apart from reducing employee productivity, such incidents often result in disruption of normal business operations. Consequently, your company incurs significant losses and has to provide suitable compensation to affected employees.
Over the years, the federal government has introduced new policies and regulations to improve workplace safety. The establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1970 was a major breakthrough in this regard. OSHA has outlined certain workplace safety regulations and standards that employers must adhere to. However, despite these developments, employees in many sectors continue to work under hazardous circumstances.
In this article, we will take a closer look at the challenges government agencies face while regulating workplace safety. Before we delve deeper, let us take a look at what steps the government has taken to improve workforce safety.
Government Regulations on Workforce Safety
The U.S. Department of Labor has created various agencies that are responsible for ensuring the safety and health of workers in the U.S. OSHA, the most significant agency, was established on April 28, 1971, under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act). The act was signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon on December 29, 1970.
OSHA was formed with the vision of creating safe and healthy working conditions for employees in the U.S. Its main responsibility is to administer the OSH Act and develop enforceable workplace safety standards for various industries. OSHA is also responsible for organizing training programs for health and safety personnel. Additionally, it has enforced whistleblower provisions of the OSH Act to ensure that employees who report safety concerns or injuries aren’t discriminated against.
OSHA also conducts regular inspections of workplaces to identify potential safety issues. Employers who fail to comply with the safety standards are issued fines and citations. Apart from planned inspections, OSHA can also carry out an impromptu inspection on receiving a complaint from workers. OSHA also requires employers to maintain detailed records of workplace hazards and injuries.
It is, however, essential to point out that OSHA only covers private-sector employers and a few public-sector employers. Apart from the federal OSHA regulations, many states have developed their own OSHA-approved state programs. Moreover, OSHA doesn’t cover employees working for the state and local governments. It is also not applicable to individuals who are self-employed or employed by their immediate family members.
It is also important to note that OSHA’s standards don’t cover workers in certain industries that are regulated by other federal agencies. For instance, workers employed at various mines are protected by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Similar to OSHA, MSHA is an agency under the U.S. Department of Labor. It was established to administer and enforce the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977. It covers all mining and mineral processing operations in the U.S.
Now that we have a better idea of federal regulations and policies for workplace safety, let us take a look at the limitations.
Challenges & Limitations
While the introduction of OSHA has improved workplace safety in the U.S., there have been concerns about its overall efficacy. One of the biggest limitations of OSHA is that its federal standards don’t cover workers at state and local government agencies. Such employees are only protected under the OSH Act if their state has an OSHA-approved state program. This means OSHA will have limited power to control and intervene in case of safety hazards and accidents in such workplaces.
It is equally important to understand that all the OSHA-approved state programs aren’t equally effective. Moreover, there aren’t any strict guidelines on the development and implementation of these state plans. It has only been presumed that such programs should be at least half as effective as the federal OSHA program. Unfortunately, there aren’t any federal regulations to ensure the same.
This, in turn, results in a lack of uniformity and consistency in workplace safety regulations across different states. The combination of federal OSHA and state-run OSHA offices also makes it challenging to ascertain each agency’s role and responsibility in ensuring workforce safety. Additionally, it limits federal OSHA’s power to enforce uniform safety standards across all workplaces.
OSHA also faces another crucial challenge of carrying out timely inspections. OSHA is a relatively small agency with an estimated 2,400 inspectors. Given the number of business organizations in the U.S., it is only possible for OSHA to inspect a small fraction of workplaces every year. Consequently, many workplaces with safety issues and violations may get away scot-free for many years before an OSHA inspector comes knocking at their door.
Another critical concern is that OSHA issues relatively lower fines compared to other government agencies. Moreover, in the case of a workplace accident or fatality, criminal penalties are particularly lenient. The maximum penalty is a misdemeanor with a jail sentence of 6 months. Additionally, OSHA has often failed to pursue criminal prosecution in such cases in the past. OSHA has also been criticized for using archaic laws and guidelines to develop some of its standards.
Lastly, the under-reporting of workplace hazards, injuries, and illness is a significant setback for OSHA. OSHA regulations require covered employers high-hazard industries to investigate and maintain a record of such incidents. However, these records are usually brought to OSHA’s notice only during a routine inspection. The absence of reliable and up-to-date data on injuries and accidents disrupts OSHA’s efforts to improve workplace safety standards.
Protecting employees from workplace-related illnesses and injuries is as much the responsibility of an employer as it is of the government. The U.S. Department of Labor has established OSHA to enforce workplace safety regulations through federal standards or OSHA-approved state programs. However, federal OSHA standards don’t cover employees of state and local government agencies. Additionally, there aren’t any clear guidelines on the development of OSHA-approved state programs.
Moreover, the shortage of trained and efficient inspectors poses a huge challenge for OSHA. With around 2,400 inspectors, it will take decades before OSHA has inspected all the workplaces under its jurisdiction. The recruitment of skilled inspectors should be of the utmost priority. Moreover, the government should impose additional regulations to encourage the reporting of workplace accidents and injuries.
What do you think the government can do to improve workplace safety regulations and policies? Share your views in the comments section below.