Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA)

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A federal act passed in 1970 to ensure a minimum level of safety in working conditions. The act is codified in 29 U.S.C. §§ 651–678. The Act may also be referred to as the Williams-Steiger Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. In § 655, Congress delegated to Secretary of Labor the power to promulgate standards to administer the act. The Secretary has in turn created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, also referred to as OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC), and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to assist in administering the Act. 

The Act’s explicit purpose, laid out in § 651(b), is “to assure so far as possible every working man and woman in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions and to preserve our human resource.” § 654 requires employers to “furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees,” and to comply with standards promulgated by the Secretary or any agencies administering the act. Overall, the Act tries to accomplish workplace safety by preventing unsafe working conditions before they arise. As the U.S. Supreme Court in Whirlpool Corp. v. Marshal explained, “the legislation's remedial orientation is prophylactic in nature … The Act does not wait for an employee to die or become injured. It authorizes the promulgation of health and safety standards and the issuance of citations in the hope that these will act to prevent deaths or injuries from ever occurring.” 

The Act’s scope is broad, and under § 653 and 29 C.F.R. § 1975.4, it applies to all U.S. territory and any employers employing one or more employee. However, under § 653(b)(1) the Act does not apply to the working conditions of employees of Federal or State agencies. § 653(b)(4) also clarifies that Congress intended that the Act have no direct impact on workers’ compensation laws.

[Last updated in April of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team]