The Occupational Safety and Health Act
Directorate of Assessments and Prevention
Workplace Safety Division
U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center
Fort Rucker, Alabama
In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson called on Congress to enact a job safety and health program when he discovered that more than 14,000 workers were killed (about 38 people per day), 2.2 million others were injured or disabled, and approximately 300,000 cases of occupational diseases were reported every year. The U.S. was in the midst of the Industrial Revolution and plagued by grisly accidents and tragedies in the workplace. Unfortunately, the bill was never introduced to Congress because national attention was focused on domestic issues such as violence in the inner cities and demonstrations against the Vietnam War.
After his inauguration in 1969, President Richard Nixon proposed his version of a comprehensive plan to support the health and safety of workers. Following a relentless battle with Congress, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (also known as Public Law 91-596) was signed into law Dec. 29, 1970. This act is referred to as the Williams-Steiger or Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act of 1970.
The OSH Act established the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a part of the Department of Labor, which is responsible for administering the OSH Act. OSHA’s responsibilities are to ensure safe and healthy working conditions by establishing standards and providing helpful services, including training, outreach, education and compliance assistance. Under the OSH Act, employers are responsible for providing a safe and healthy workplace by:
- Encouraging employers and employees to reduce workplace hazards
- Implementing or continuously improving existing safety and health programs
- Establishing the rights of employers and employees regarding the improvement of workplace safety and health
- Monitoring job-related illnesses and injuries through a system of reporting and recordkeeping
- Establishing training programs to increase the number of safety and health professionals and to continually improve their competence
- Establishing and enforcing workplace safety and health standards
Section 19 (Federal Agency Safety Programs and Responsibilities) of the OSH Act broadens the mandate application to all federal government agencies. However, OSHA’s authority and jurisdiction over the U.S. military is somewhat limited. Presidential Executive Order (EO) 12196, Occupational Safety and Health Programs for Federal Agencies, applies to all agencies of the executive branch, except military personnel and uniquely military equipment, systems and operations. The term “uniquely military equipment, systems and operations" excludes from the scope of the order the design of Department of Defense (DoD) equipment and systems that are unique to the national defense mission, such as military aircraft, ships, submarines, missiles and missile sites, early warning systems, military space systems, artillery, tanks and tactical vehicles, and also excludes operations that are uniquely military such as field maneuvers, naval operations, military flight operations, associated research test and development activities, and actions required under emergency conditions.
The term includes within the scope of the EO DoD workplaces and operations comparable to those of industry in the private sector such as vessel, aircraft and vehicle repair, overhaul and modification (except for equipment trials); construction; supply services; civil engineering or public works; medical services; and office work. OSHA does not cover the health and safety of uniformed personnel working on uniquely military operations and activities; however, OSHA’s regulations do apply when military activities are not uniquely military.
Generally speaking, when the workplace or activity is comparably similar to a private-sector workplace or activity, as determined by the DoD, then OSHA’s regulations have applicability to military personnel. In addition, EO 12196 specifically charges the head of each federal agency to establish and maintain an effective and comprehensive occupational safety and health program which is consistent (or better) with the standards promulgated in Chapter 6 of the OSH Act of 1970 (the standards set by OSHA for private sector employees). In the Army, Chapter 1 of Army Regulation 385-10 spells out the policy, responsibilities and procedures to safeguard and preserve Army resources.
There are more than 700,000 civilian personnel working for the DoD, and more than 330,000 are Army civilians. These civilians are employed in an array of critical positions worldwide, with opportunities for people from all walks of life. These civilians are covered by OSHA when working on equipment, systems and operations that are not military unique. Therefore, the military facilities, operations, procedures and equipment are subject to OSHA standards to protect the health and safety of civilian employees.
In summation, the OSH Act and EO 12196 were designed to protect the most important asset in the workplace — the people. Employee protection is paramount regardless if the workplace is private sector, federal and military. The OSH Act defines responsibility and accountability for both the employee and employer. It also establishes OSHA as an enforcement agency authorized to conduct workplace inspections based on imminent danger situations, catastrophes, fatal mishaps, employee complaints and programmed high-hazard inspections regardless of the basis of industry type.