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Occupational Safety and Health Act of (1970)

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, 29 U.S.C.A. § 651 et seq., a business that negligently jeopardizes the lives or health of its workers commits a federal misdemeanor.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 created the LABOR DEPARTMENT's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to serve as the federal government's workplace-safety watchdog, and the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC) to rule on cases, forwarded to it by the Labor Department, of disagreements over the results of OSHA safety and health inspections.

The act authorizes civil fines up to $10,000 for instances where employers "willfully" expose workers to "serious" harm or death. Any act of criminal negligence can result in imprisonment of up to six months.

The Labor Department's assistant secretary for occupational safety and health has responsibility for overseeing OSHA. OSHA has its headquarters in Washington, D.C., and maintains ten regional offices. It develops and promulgates occupational safety and health standards and it issues regulations that enforce these standards. The essence of OSHA is its inspection responsibility. OSHA inspectors conduct investigations and inspections to determine the status of compliance with safety and health standards and regulations. If an inspector visits a work site and finds that the employer is not in compliance with OSHA regulations, the inspector issues a citation and proposes penalties.

From its inception, OSHA has been a controversial agency. Businesses have complained that OSHA regulations are often too bureaucratic, rigid, and hard to understand, making compliance difficult. Organized labor, on the other hand, has charged that OSHA is not diligent enough in enforcing the regulations.

During the administration of President RONALD REAGAN, the number of OSHA inspectors was reduced by 25 percent, making it even more difficult to investigate allegations of injuries. In addition, President Reagan, by EXECUTIVE ORDER No. 12,291 in 1981, permitted OSHA to certify that a company was in compliance with safety and health standards by reviewing paperwork submitted by the company.

OSHA standards and regulations touch every facet of workplace health and safety. The regulations establish maximum levels of exposure to lead, asbestos, chemicals, and other toxic substances, and they specify the proper safety gear for workers. For example, construction workers who work on scaffolding or on structural steel must wear a safety harness.

During the late 1990s, questions arose about whether OSHA regulations applied to commuters and work-at-home employees. In a response to an inquiry about these questions in November 1999, OSHA stated that employers who allow employees to work at home were indeed responsible for any injuries that occurred in the employee's home. This interpretation would mean that employers would have to inspect each employee's home and, if necessary, make necessary corrections to the home design, including cooling, heating, and ventilation systems. Although OSHA claimed that the letter did not represent official policy, several businesses and members of Congress heavily criticized the letter.

OSHA withdrew the responses to the letter in January 2000. According to statements by OSHA spokespersons, the regulations do not apply to most white-collar commuters who work at home. However, regulations do apply to employees who conduct hazardous manufacturing from their homes.

OSHA's letter regarding the regulation of home offices did not end with the agency's withdrawal of its response. In 2001, President GEORGE W. BUSH introduced a series of proposals, named the "New Freedom Initiatives", designed to enhance the opportunities for DISABLED PERSONS under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Among the proposals was a call to prevent OSHA from regulating home offices, including a specific reference to the 1999 OSHA letter.

OSHA works to improve health and safety through education and training programs. It also provides assistance to state occupational and health programs to maintain consistent national standards. Among its numerous initiatives, OSHA has sought to reduce ergonomic hazards in the workplace that cause pain and discomfort for millions of workers in the U.S. For example, in 2003, OSHA announced that it would work with the U.S. POSTAL SERVICE to reduce ergonomic injuries among employees of the service.

Employers have the right to dispute any alleged job-safety or health violation found during an OSHA inspection, the penalties OSHA has proposed, or the time given by OSHA to correct any hazardous situation. Employees and union representatives may file a case challenging the propriety of the time that OSHA has allowed for correction of any violation.

These cases are heard by OSHRC, an independent, QUASI-JUDICIAL agency. A case arises when a citation is issued against the employer as a result of an OSHA inspection and the employer contests the citation within 15 working days.

All cases that require a hearing are assigned to an administrative law judge (ALJ), who decides the case. The government has the BURDEN OF PROOF. A substantial number of the decisions of the ALJs become final orders of the commission. However, each decision is subject to discretionary review by the three members of the commission upon the direction of any one of the three, if done within 30 days of the filing of the decision. A party who is dissatisfied with an ALJ decision does not have a right of appeal to the commission but must convince at least one commissioner to exercise discretion and to agree to have the commission hear the appeal. When discretionary review is taken, the commission issues its own decision. Once a case is decided, any person who has been adversely affected may file an appeal with a U.S. court of appeals.

The principal office of the commission is located in Washington, D.C. There are also three regional offices where commission judges are stationed.


U.S. Government Manual Website. Available online at <www.gpoaccess.gov/gmanual> (accessed November 10, 2003).

OSHA Website. Available online at <www.osha.gov> (accessed November 10, 2003).

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