Understanding the Occupational Safety and Health Law(s)

Do you know what Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) law(s) cover your employer? Who has the authority to inspect your employer for OSH compliance? What agency do you call for an OSH complaint or to report a violation? There are so many variables involved with the OSH programs throughout all 50 states and U.S. territories; therefore the most accurate answer to these and most OSHA related questions is “it depends.”

The basic purpose of the OSH law(s) are to codify the fact employers are responsible for providing a safe and healthful workplace for their employees. Since the introduction of the federal OSH law in 1970, workplace safety has significantly improved and work-related injuries and deaths have been reduced by more than 65 percent nationally.

In order to better understand Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) laws, we first need to understand how they are created. OSH Laws are created by legislative bodies at either the federal or state level and approved by their respective executive officer (e.g. The President, Governor, etc.). Laws are the authority for which OSH Regulations and Standards are enforced.

Most individuals believe the federal OSH law applies to everyone, but this is simply not true. The federal OSH law only applies to those states and territories which fall under the jurisdiction of federal OSHA. Twenty-seven states and territories are covered by their own individual OSH law(s) and not the federal OSH law. There are also several categories of employers and employees who are exempt from the OSH law(s).

The Federal Law that Governs Occupational Safety and Health

In 1970, the U.S. Congress created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The governing law for Occupational Safety and Health is 29 U.S. Code Chapter 15 – Occupational Safety and Health (The OSH Act), which is also known as the Williams-Steiger Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. Section 18 of the OSH Act encourages states to develop and operate their own job safety and health programs and precludes state enforcement of OSHA standards unless the state has an OSHA-approved program.

OSH Act Coverage

Private Sector Employees

The federal OSH Act covers most private sector employers and their employees either directly through the federal OSH Act or through an equivalent State OSH Program law. State Plans may adopt part or all of the federal OSHA regulations but the enforcement authority comes from their respective State OSH Act or law, not the federal OSH Act.

State and Local Government Employees

Employees who work for state and local governments are not covered by Federal OSHA. However they are protected if they work in a state that has an OSHA-Approved State Program Plan under the appropriate state law(s).

Federal Government Employees

Federal agencies must have a safety and health program that meets or exceeds the OSHA standards for private employers. Although OSHA does not fine federal agencies, it does monitor federal agencies and responds to workers’ complaints. The United States Postal Service (USPS) is not a federal agency, however, it is also covered by federal OSHA. Federal employers and their employees are under the jurisdiction of federal OSHA in all states and territories (including approved State Plan Programs).

NOT covered by the OSH Act:

  • Self-employed;
  • Immediate family members of farm employers that do not employ outside employees; and
  • Workplace Hazards regulated by another Federal agency (e.g. the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and the Coast Guard).

Does my State fall under Federal OSHA or is it a State Plan State?

There are currently 27 states and territories, including other areas under federal authority, which have OSHA-Approved State Plans. On a regular basis, federal OSHA approves and monitors these state plans for compliance. Each State Plan must be at least as effective as (ALAEA) the federal OSHA program. State Plans receive about fifty percent of their annual operating funds from federal OSHA with the respective state or territory agreeing to match or exceed the federal funds.

The following 22 states or territories have OSHA-approved State Plans that cover both private and public sector workers:

  • 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

Federal OSHA also covers private sector workers in the following four states and the Virgin Islands. However, these four states and one U.S. territory have OSHA-approved State Plans that cover only their public sector workers.

  • Connecticut
  • Illinois
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Virgin Islands

Only about fifty percent of the private sector employers in all fifty states and multiple territories are under the jurisdiction of federal OSHA. Therefore it is very important for each of us to understand what Occupational Safety and Health agency has jurisdiction for our employer.

The more we all understand about Occupational Safety and Health the more likely we are to have a safe and healthy workplace. For further information on how OSHA laws apply to you, please visit your state OSH agency website or the federal OSHA website at https://www.osha.gov.

Knowledge is Power. Be Safe, Your Life Depends on It!


OSHA, (2014), All About OSHA Pamphlet. Retrieved from https://www.osha.gov/Publications/all_about_OSHA.pdf

OSHA, (2014), Directorate of Cooperative and State Programs: State Plans, Frequently Asked Questions. Retrieved from https://www.osha.gov/dcsp/osp/