What is occupational health and safety?

In the United States, a safe and healthy workplace is often taken for granted. But today’s safety-conscious factory floors and well-lit offices are relatively new inventions in modern society—a direct result of the efforts of those working in the occupational health and safety field.

Committed to the research and prevention of workplace injuries and illnesses, the field of occupational health and safety is responsible for the overwhelmingly positive results American workers have achieved over the past 200 years.

Hazardous machinery and poorly ventilated factories that were once commonplace have provided workers with a safer, cleaner environment. A combination of legislation, executive branch regulation and responsible business self-regulation has transformed the American workplace.

As a result, accident and fatality rates in most industries have steadily declined for decades—a trend that continues to this day.


Occupational health and safety is the field of public health that studies trends in disease and injury among worker populations and proposes and implements strategies and regulations to prevent these diseases and regulations. It is broad in scope and covers a wide range of disciplines – from toxicology and epidemiology to ergonomics and violence prevention.

Historically, occupational health and safety work has focused on manual labor occupations, such as factory workers. But the field now covers all occupations in the United States.

In addition to ensuring that our work environments (from construction sites to office buildings) have appropriate safety precautions to prevent injury, occupational health professionals work to limit short- and long-term hazards that could lead to physical or mental illness now or in the future.

In the United States, nearly 3 million people suffer some kind of serious work-related injury or illness each year. Millions of people face environmental health hazards that can cause problems years later.

Workers’ compensation claims total more than $1 billion per week. That doesn’t even include lost wages and other indirect costs like lost productivity and the psychological cost of going through or caring for the injured.

With the exception of the self-employed and relatives of farm workers, virtually all private and public employers have a social and legal responsibility to establish and maintain a safe and healthy environment.

Some are happy to comply for ethical reasons, or because injuries and illnesses result in lost productivity, increased turnover and employer-subsidized health insurance premiums. Large employers often establish their own workplace health and safety programs that go beyond regulatory requirements.


The idea that American workplaces should be required to adhere to minimum safety and health standards isn’t all that controversial — but it wasn’t always the case.

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Working conditions for the average American began to improve on and off in recent decades, as major security legislation that changed the economy was passed over the past 150 years, and the two major political parties in the United States continued to enact various smaller regulations in recent decades. improve.

After the Civil War, factories started popping up all over the United States. Often staffed with young, inexperienced workers, these factories are dangerous workplaces.

A story compiled by the Massachusetts Department of Labor in an 1872 report details many horrific incidents in which workers lost limbs or were killed for ill-equipped and physically exhausting tasks.

In addition to the dangerous equipment and machinery, the facility is dirty and poorly ventilated. Opening the windows reportedly disturbed the materials inside the factory, so they remained closed, allowing workers to breathe in chemical fumes and accumulated dust day in and day out.

In response to the 1872 report and aggregated statistics, Massachusetts became the first state in the United States to require factory inspections, which included verifying that fire exits at each factory were in place. Other states quickly followed suit. By 1890, 21 states had some sort of law on the books limiting health hazards in the workplace.

While these efforts are a step in the right direction, it’s a mess of laws and regulations. Rules vary from state to state and are not always enforced.

States with looser policies lured businesses away from stricter states and pushed for scaling back regulations. A back-and-forth began as the public demanded stricter laws and businesses worked to loosen them.

These sporadic regulations finally came to a head in December 1970, when then-President Richard Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the first far-reaching federal law to protect American workers.

The law gives the U.S. government the authority to set and enforce safety and health standards for nearly all of the nation’s workforce. Soon after, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was created to oversee the implementation of the new law.

In the years since, improvements and additions to state and federal laws have been passed, expanding the role of occupational health and safety professionals and further ensuring safe workspaces for all. Now, if you get injured on the job, you won’t go bankrupt with workers’ compensation.

Legal recourse to negligent or unsafe employers. Inspection and monitoring systems help identify unsafe situations. Modern data-driven workplace safety programs can proactively identify risks and help employers address potential conditions that put workers at risk.

While it’s hard to estimate the true impact of the law – we don’t have a lot of data on workplace safety before the OSH Act – it is estimated that total workplace deaths have fallen by more than 65%, despite the dramatic change increase in the country’s workforce.

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current issue

Today, the issues that occupational health and safety specialists study and manage vary by occupation. For example, physical threats such as heights and heavy machinery may be a greater concern for construction workers, while mental health and repetitive stress injuries may be a focus in the office environment.

Even so, despite vast improvements in workplace standards, the U.S. workforce still has many safety and health concerns and can do a lot of work.


Hundreds of workers in the U.S. die every year from falls at work. While these events are almost entirely preventable, falls are the leading cause of death among construction workers.

For many builders, working at heights is unavoidable, but with proper safety precautions, death and injury can be avoided. These precautions should be started before work begins, even at the earliest stages of the planning phase.

Employers should include the cost of safety equipment (such as harnesses, scaffolding, and fall arrest systems) into the project’s work estimates so that every worker has access to and is trained to use the required equipment.


According to OSHA, dozens of workers die each year while working in extreme heat or humidity, and thousands more get sick. The largest percentage of these situations occur in the construction industry, but it can happen to anyone working in an environment with inadequate climate control.

Under federal law, employers have a legal obligation to ensure that the work environment is free of safety hazards. This includes extreme temperatures.

For its part, OSHA is encouraging business owners and managers to protect their workers from heat-related illnesses and injuries through an informational campaign that encourages them to provide water, rest, and shade for all their employees—especially is when the High Temperature Index is 91 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.

repetitive stress injury

An emerging area related to occupational health is injuries caused by poor posture and repetitive movements. Many American workers work almost exclusively on computers, using the mouse and typing for hours on end, resulting in overuse of certain muscles and joints.

This repetitive, day-to-day activity can lead to injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome or even eye strain.Modern workers also tend to use poor posture when using electronic devices, whether on or off duty, which can also lead to long-term pain, lost productivity, and medical bills.

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Many employers have found that investing in ergonomic and office-based safety initiatives (such as for slips, trips, and falls) actually yields a positive return on investment once productivity losses and employer medical costs are factored in.

Understanding Repetitive Stress Injury

sedentary behavior

The U.S. population has become increasingly sedentary as the workforce shifts from manual labor to desk work. Office workers typically sit for hours at a time during work hours — not to mention during their daily commute and leisure time.

But a sedentary lifestyle can have major impacts on your health, including an increased risk of obesity, blood clots and death.

Only 53.3% of U.S. adults get the recommended weekly amount of aerobic exercise, and only 23.2% get enough weekly aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities. However, even that may not be enough to avoid the risk of being tied to a table.

One study found that those who accumulated a cumulative 12.5 hours a day (within the odds range of commuter commuters who like to relax on the couch) were more likely to die from all causes than those who were more active and moved around at least every 30 hours. every minute.

This is true whether or not an individual exercises regularly. Sitting too long and too often can have devastating consequences over time.

How Sitting Can Damage Your Health

non-lethal damage

Many people envision workplace safety primarily in terms of traditional risk industries such as construction, deep-sea fishing or logging. In fact, these industries experience some of the highest number of worker fatalities in the United States.

However, non-fatal injuries and illnesses tell a very different story. These injuries can lead to significant loss of productivity, as more than half of these injuries result in days of inability to work—not to mention the added cost of treatment and the burden of human suffering.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can I check if my workplace is safe?

    You can ask an OSHA representative to inspect your workplace to determine if there are any safety violations. Workers or someone representing them can make this request or file a complaint about the work environment.

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  • What are common workplace hazards?

    Hazards vary by industry. There are six hazards: biological, chemical, ergonomic, work organization, safety or physical. Some specific situations that make a workplace unsafe include fall hazards (wet floors, ladders, etc.), eye strain, fire risk, poor air quality, and high temperatures.

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