Osha: History, Court Cases, Connection with Human Resources

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The United States Department of Labor oversees more than 180 million federal laws that govern workplace activities. These laws include regulations of hiring, wages, salary, discrimination, harassment, benefits, recruiting and selecting employees, privacy, safety, and other workplace issues (Doyle, 2017). An area of employment laws revolves around the safety and health of employees in the workplace. A significant employment law in this area is the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) which is a relatively newer employment law compared to others enacted.

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Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA)

The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) of 1970 created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). With the creation of OSHA, health and safety conditions are regulated to ensure that there are no serious hazards and that if working within a hazardous area, employees receive any necessary training, education, and assistance (Department of Labor, 2017). This employment law covers most employers in the private sector and some public-sector employers in all 50 states and certain territories (Department of Labor, 2017). In the workplace, a poster is displayed by law which identifies the right of the workers and what the employer must do to be OSHA compliant (Rodriguez, 2017). The OSH Administration, in addition to the Human Resource professionals, also enforces the laws and regulations enacted by the OSH Act.

Early History of OSHA

In the 19th century, safety was not a priority in the workplace and thus was different than the OSHA that exists today (Department of Labor, 2009). In 1877, Massachusetts passed the nation’s first safety and health legislation regarding belts, shafts, gears, and protection on elevators. Within the next two decades, additional safety measures were implemented including: nine states provided for factory inspectors, 13 states required machine guards, and 21 states made limited provision for health hazards (Department of Labor, 2009).

In the early 20th century, the U.S. Bureau of Labor published graphically detailed studies and images of occupational fatalities and illnesses in the workplace. On March 4, 1913, President William Howard Taft signed a bill that established the Department of Labor (Department of Labor, 2009). Twenty years following the establishment of the Department of Labor, Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve as a member of the Cabinet, was appointed to the Secretary of Labor role. During her time as Secretary, Perkins created the Bureau of Labor Standards, which was the first permanent federal agency established to promote safety and health. This Bureau was established to help state governments improve their health and safety legislations. A few decades later, this Bureau would be known as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Department of Labor, 2009).

The Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act was officially signed into law under the Nixon administration in 1970. The Act was effective on April 28, 1971 but there was a 90-day grace period for previously non-covered employers to familiarize themselves with the standards and provide coverage for their employees. While there were no specific court cases that led to the inception of OSHA, there were approximately 14,000 work-related fatalities were reported each year in addition to 2.5 million work-related disabilities and 300,000 cases of job-related illnesses prior to its official inception (Department of Labor, 2009).

Court Cases and OSHA

Although there were no court cases which influenced OSHA’s inception, since its origination, OSHA has been involved in many workplace related cases. A recent notable case was OSHA vs. SeaWorld of Florida LLC following the death of the trainer, Dawn Brancheau. The decision found that SeaWorld did not have adequate precautions to prevent serious bodily harm or death to its trainers (OHS, 2014). In 2016, five companies faced OSHA violations and over $115K in fines following inspections of multiple safety hazards at a construction site. Especially in the construction industry, fall prevention is a large area where most companies have violations as there is not enough protection equipment or procedures in place (Department of Labor, 2016). Last year alone, fall protection, respiratory protection, lockout/tagout, ladder safety, and machine guarding made the list of the most cited violations in the workplace (NSC, 2017). Since its implementation as an Act, the OSH Administration has handled many court cases to protect employees and their safety in the workplace.

OSHA and Human Resources

Under the OSH Act, employers are required to display the federal OSHA “Job Safety and Health: It’s the Law” poster in a visible place. If there are also state-specific OSHA legislations, then that poster with the state-specific should also be displayed in the workplace (Department of Labor, 2017; Rodriguez, 2017). The Human Resources employee for the company not only should help maintain the poster and ensure that it is in a visible place, they should also assist with maintaining the records, documenting any work-related injuries, fatalities, or illnesses which may have occurred. If these are not documented correctly or within the required time, then the company is subjected to penalties and violations (Department of Labor, 2016).

Human resources professionals play an important role in workplace safety as they know their workplace, especially the employees and the demands of the job (CCOHS, n.d.). While it is not required to know the technical aspects, it is important to understand the basics of the state and federal regulations for workplace safety, especially if the company may be in violation of one of those regulations. In most companies, the health and safety responsibilities fall on the Human Resources professional where they may need to ensure that personnel management policies are implemented (CCOHS, n.d.).


After reading about the various employment laws that are enacted in the workplace, there is one area that is important for all industries, safety in the workplace. Since employees spend most of their daily lives at work, it is important to ensure that the workplace is safe and healthy, especially to ensure that illnesses, injuries, or fatalities do not occur. As a Human Resources professional, it is important to understand the basics of OSHA regulations to ensure that no violations are occurring in the workplace. Especially as technology and times are rapidly changing, it is important to understand the various employment laws and the aspects of the Human resource field that it impacts.


  • Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS). (n.d.) Health and safety guide for human resources professionals. Retrieved from
  • Doyle, A. (2017). List of U.S. employment laws. The Balance. Retrieved from
  • National Safety Council (NSC). (2017). OSHA’s top 10 violation for 2017 revealed at NSC Congress & Expo. Retrieved from
  • OHS. (2014). OSHA wins SeaWorld case. Retrieved from
  • United States Department of Labor. (2009). Reflections on OSHA’s history. Retrieved from
  • United States Department of Labor. (2016). OSHA news release – Region 5. Retrieved from
    United States Department of Labor. (2017). About OSHA. Retrieved from

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