What you need to know about OSHA, the little agency in charge of major workplace regulations

Brush up on the regulatory body that’s more important than you might know.
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· 3 min read

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This October, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is feeling like Nick Foles in 2018: The small, underfunded federal agency has been tasked with formalizing President Biden’s vaccine mandate, then setting workplace extreme-heat standards, with the whole country watching. As OSHA moves forward with the rulemaking process and submits the initial text of the vaccination mandate to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for review, Americans are doing what they did pre–Super Bowl LII—googling to learn more about the underdog.

Some introductions are in order. OSHA was created by the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act of 1970: a radical law that says employees have the right to survive the workday, and, if they don’t, employers can face legal consequences.

Before OSHA, workers had few federal protections, and the situation was bleak: In 1970, there were 38 on-the-job deaths reported per day on average in the US and 10.9 workplace injuries; in 2019, on-the-job deaths were down to an average of 15 per day, nationwide.

Rules, rules, rules. OSHA loves detailed rules more than the TSA, middle school principals, and sorority standards boards combined. Here’s what we can expect from the rulemaking process:

  • Ahead of schedule. Dr. David Michaels, former head of OSHA under President Obama, told HR Brew that rulemaking can be a decades-long affair. But Biden isn’t in the mood for drawn-out processes: Michaels says that by calling for the mandate publicly, the White House put the “pressure on” OSHA to act quickly. They’ve done that—as a Labor Department representative said on Tuesday, OSHA staff “worked expeditiously,” cranking out final-exams-studying kind of hours to submit text to OMB just a month after Biden’s announcement.
  • Moving target. According to former OSHA chief of staff Debbie Berkowitz, the 22 states and territories with individual OSHA agencies can create their own standards—provided they are equally or more effective than the federal standard. Employers must comply with the highest-applicable safety standard.
  • No pre-dawn raids. OSHA is unlikely to show up unannounced: They have 1,850 inspectors—or one compliance officer for every 70,000 workers. Epidemiologist David Rosner told HR Brew the agency picks its battles: “Because of budget limitations, OSHA’s adopted a ‘worst offender first’ model where they inspect egregious violations. Unless they know about a violation or a suspected violation, it’s unlikely for them to pay companies a visit.”

Bottom Line: By all accounts, OSHA is typically a tortoise, but it’s been ordered on live TV to move at a hare’s pace. Their ability to do so is consequential: The perception that the agency failed to deliver could fuel partisan calls to defund the agency. Moving the process forward quickly to OMB can only benefit the agency.

Dr. Michaels said OSHA’s vaccination standard “won’t be perfect,” but it’s a good first step to offering clarity to HR professionals attempting to lead through the pandemic: “It will certainly increase protections for workers in many workplaces.” —SV

HR is challenging. HR news doesn’t have to be.

HR Brew keeps you effective in the fast-changing business environment.