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Updated Feb 14, 2024

What Is OSHA Compliance?

Learn about Occupational Safety and Health Administration compliance and how it relates to your business.

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Max Freedman, Senior Analyst & Expert on Business Operations
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It’s vital to provide a safe work environment for your employees to ensure their well-being. In addition, failing to prioritize safety can be extremely costly in the long run. Employers that do not comply with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations could face financial penalties up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Just as important, OSHA compliance decreases the likelihood that your employees will become too sick or injured to work.

OSHA compliance and its associated workplace safety and health measures help safeguard you, your employees and your operations. Learn more about OSHA compliance and why and how you should adhere to these regulations.

What is OSHA?

OSHA is a federal agency housed within the Department of Labor (DOL). Its purpose is to establish and enforce rules that employers must follow to keep their workplaces safe and healthy for all employees. OSHA may also provide employer and employee training, education, outreach and assistance.

What does it mean to be OSHA compliant?

OSHA compliance is a company’s adherence to all OSHA workplace safety standards. OSHA compliance requires employers to promptly detect and resolve workplace health and safety issues. Notably, OSHA compliance requires companies to fix pressing problems before measures such as personal protective equipment (PPE) become necessary.

The exact requirements of an OSHA-compliant workplace

In practice, OSHA compliance requires employers to follow dozens of more specific rules to keep employees safe and healthy.

OSHA’s workplace safety guidelines, as first outlined in the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act of 1970, state that employers must do the following:

  • Guarantee a workplace with no serious recognized hazards
  • Regularly keep workplace conditions in line with basic OSHA standards
  • Provide employees with only safe equipment and tools, and maintain or upgrade these devices as needed
  • Post clear, prominent signage to indicate potential workplace hazards to employees
  • Outline safe workplace operation procedures and notify employees of policy changes
  • Provide workplace safety training for employees in clear, easy-to-understand language
  • Teach employees about safe chemical use, incident prevention and hazardous exposure protocol
  • Store data sheets for all hazardous materials digitally or physically in the workplace
  • If applicable, follow OSHA standards for training and medical examinations
  • Display an OSHA poster or your state OSHA agency’s equivalent in a workplace location with heavy foot traffic
  • Report all workplace incidents to OSHA according to the following timeline:
    • Report work-related deaths within eight hours
    • Report work-related eye losses, amputations and inpatient hospitalizations within 24 hours
  • Maintain a running record of all work-related injuries and illnesses, and give current and former employees easy access to these records
  • Provide employees with medical and exposure records
  • Heed all OSHA compliance officer requests during workplace safety and health inspections
  • Never discriminate or retaliate against employees who pursue legal or other action according to their OSHA rights
  • Display OSHA citations near spaces deemed unsafe for the longer of the following:
    • Three full days
    • Until the area becomes safe again
  • Correct any OSHA violations within OSHA’s designated time frame and submit documentation
TipBottom line
OSHA recommends that employers implement a safety and health program. Although the federal government does not mandate this, many states do have laws around workplace safety and health programs.

Who does OSHA compliance apply to?

OSHA compliance applies to nearly all businesses. Unless your company meets the limited exemption standards, your workplace must always comply with OSHA. The following types of companies, employees and business circumstances are exempt from OSHA’s federal workplace safety standards:

  • Self-employed people with no employees
  • Farm employers’ immediate family members
  • Any workplace hazards that another federal agency, such as the Mine Safety and Health Administration, would cover instead

Additionally, roughly half of all states have their own workplace safety and health programs, even though the OSH Act applies to all private companies in the U.S. and its territories. The places with state plans for the public sector and most of the private sector include the following:

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Hawaii
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Kentucky
  • Maryland
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Nevada
  • New Mexico
  • North Carolina
  • Oregon
  • Puerto Rico
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • Wyoming

These places have state plans limited to the public sector:

  • Connecticut
  • Illinois
  • Maine
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • The U.S. Virgin Islands

The state authority and the federal OSHA may split employer OSHA coverage in these states. However, in all 50 states, the federal OSHA has the final say in all workplace safety and health matters.

What happens if you don’t comply with OSHA?

Lack of compliance could prove dangerous for you and your employees. Sick or injured employees can’t perform their usual work for you, thus hurting your operations and revenue.

Failing to remain OSHA compliant has legal ramifications as well. Employees working in a noncompliant environment can file complaints to OSHA, which can then send its officers to your workplace for an inspection. If OSHA officers find that your workplace isn’t OSHA compliant, you could face significant fines.

Compounding the short-term effects of a fine is the long-term cost of a reputation as an unsafe or unhealthy workplace. If an OSHA official designates your workplace as unsafe, employee motivation could drop, and you could see a spike in employee absenteeism and turnover. Hiring will be difficult, too, as few people are willing to work in unsafe conditions.

FYIDid you know
Failing to remain OSHA-compliant is a direct violation of employee rights. Besides incurring expensive fines, you may see high turnover among your team and have difficulty recruiting new employees.

How do you stay OSHA compliant?

Maintaining OSHA compliance is straightforward. Here are some tips for complying with OSHA requirements:

1. Determine your risk.

The first step in ensuring OSHA compliance is identifying outstanding workplace safety or health concerns. OSHA offers a guide to workplace safety assessments, which you can typically complete yourself.

2. Start with simple fixes.

Every workplace can be safer after just a few simple fixes. Identify tripping, slipping or falling hazards, and clear them. Eliminate hallway clutter, and dry your floors immediately if you clean them with liquids. Place floor mats or carpet liberally throughout your workplace.

3. Conduct workplace safety training.

All employers and teams benefit from safety training that addresses workplace fires, machinery use and licensure needed for dangerous equipment. In your training, be clear that only qualified and trained employees should use hazardous workplace tools.

4. Keep ample PPE on hand.

PPE includes anything that protects your employees from injury when they’re working with dangerous items. It is crucial to keep PPE on hand, but it is not a substitute for safety procedures. Providing PPE amid unresolved workplace safety hazards instead of addressing these hazards violates OSHA rules. Fixing the danger, rather than coming up with workarounds, should be a priority.

5. Let the machines do the lifting.

Employees who lift heavy objects as part of their work may be more prone to workplace injuries (and claims on your workers’ comp insurance). If used safely, lifting and transportation machinery can circumvent this risk, making your operations more efficient. Regardless of whether you invest in machinery, you should train your employees in proper lifting techniques.

6. Have a first-aid kit ready to go.

First-aid kits typically have everything you need for initially dealing with workplace emergencies before your employees visit a doctor or hospital. Train your employees on where first-aid kits are located and how to use one so anyone on your team can respond to emergencies immediately.

7. Properly maintain your equipment.

Old or malfunctioning equipment is always a workplace hazard, so equipment maintenance (and upgrades, when necessary) is crucial for workplace safety. Don’t try to fix it yourself or ask employees to fix it — call the professionals instead. [Read related article: Choosing a GPS Fleet Management System]

8. Don’t neglect mental health.

More than ever, mental health is a vital component of workplace safety. That’s because happier, less-stressed employees make better — and safer — decisions. A broad set of company mental-health and time-off policies can help on this front.

9. Know what to do in an emergency.

Ultimately, even employees in OSHA-compliant offices can experience workplace injuries and illnesses. That’s why even the safest companies should establish emergency protocols. Your emergency plans should cover everyday injuries; unexpected incidents; major medical emergencies, such as heart attacks; and natural disaster preparedness.

10. Have the right insurance.

Business insurance plans, such as workers’ compensation and business property insurance, are key to restoring workplace safety following major incidents. After these events, your insurance plans can step in to cover workplace safety and health costs, though they’re not a substitute for 24/7 OSHA compliance. Together, insurance and workplace safety plans keep your whole workplace safe and healthy — and operational — even in dire circumstances.

Did You Know?Did you know
Workers' comp and property insurance are just two types of business insurance that can protect your business and staff. Be sure to check out all the other types of insurance your business probably needs.

What are some examples of serious OSHA violations?

OSHA violations can fall into one of five categories: serious, other than serious, willful or repeated, posting requirements, and failure to abate. Each violation category has a minimum and maximum penalty amount per violation. While some violations that fall into a less-severe category, such as posting requirements, may have a relatively low penalty, companies with more critical violations have been known to receive penalties in the thousands and even millions.

Since January 2015, there have been more than 12,000 enforcement cases with initial penalties of $40,000 or more.

Here are a few examples of serious OSHA violations:

BP Deepwater Horizon

In 2010, one of the largest industrial accidents occurred when an oil drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. The accident killed 11 people, injured 17, endangered thousands of animals and contaminated the groundwater supply. The explosion was reportedly caused by multiple factors (including a defective concrete cap, faulty installation processes, and problem indications that were ignored during testing procedures). Ultimately, BP Products North America was slapped with more than 250 violations and more than $81.3 million in penalties.

BP Texas refinery explosion

Although the Deepwater Horizon tragedy was BP’s most costly run-in with OSHA, it’s not the first. In 2005, a refinery in Texas exploded, killing 15 people and injuring 180 others. There were multiple missteps, such as faulty equipment and improper management, but the accident ultimately occurred from an overpressurized distillation tower that overflowed and exploded. BP received more than 300 violations from OSHA and a penalty of more than $21.3 million.

Kleen Energy natural gas explosion

In 2010, an explosion occurred at Kleen Energy Systems’ natural gas power plant in Middletown, Connecticut. The plant was under construction when the blast occurred. A test “blowdown” — a purging of natural gas from a pipeline — was being conducted when it was sparked by an unknown source, killing six workers and injuring at least 50 others. OSHA cited 371 safety violations and doled out $16.6 million in penalties, with O&G Industries receiving the heftiest fine of more than $8.3 million. (Keystone Construction & Maintenance was penalized $6.6 million, and BlueWater Solutions was fined nearly $1 million.)

Skye Schooley contributed to this article. 

author image
Max Freedman, Senior Analyst & Expert on Business Operations
For almost a decade, Max Freedman has been a trusted advisor for entrepreneurs and business owners, providing practical insights to kickstart and elevate their ventures. With hands-on experience in small business management, he offers authentic perspectives on crucial business areas that run the gamut from marketing strategies to employee health insurance. Freedman's guidance is grounded in the real world and based on his years working in and leading operations for small business workplaces. Whether advising on financial statements, retirement plans or e-commerce tactics, his expertise and genuine passion for empowering business owners make him an invaluable resource in the entrepreneurial landscape.
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