Ensuring compliance with occupational safety and health regulations is an essential element of business success, given the legal hassles and steep fines that can come with failing to meet those expectations. One of the more confusing aspects of compliance is that health and safety regulations are imposed by both the federal government and state governments. Many states impose their own occupational health and safety standards in addition to those set by OSHA. Even though these standards are meant to work in tandem, it’s not always clear which ones an employer must obey.
So which agency determines your occupational health and safety requirements? When federal and state standards differ, which are you obligated to follow? The short answer is, "both."
At the federal level, OSHA sets enforceable minimum requirements for health and safety that apply to the vast majority of employers throughout the country. Virtually all states have some workplace health and safety regulations, which may be either more or less stringent than OSHA's standards covering the same aspects of workplace safety. Of these, 22 states have an OSHA-approved state plan in effect. These plans will have requirements at least as stringent as those imposed by OSHA at the federal level, and some may enforce standards that go above and beyond OSHA's minimum requirements. Employers are obligated to follow both state and federal requirements.
So how can a business best ensure that they are in compliance with the expectations put forth by both state and federal occupational health and safety regulations? The starting point is acquiring a working knowledge of federal standards, as well as those imposed by your specific state, in order to be able to make an accurate comparison between the two.
As you compare state and federal standards, the general rule of thumb for remaining in compliance when the standards don’t match is to go with the more stringent of the two. For instance, if your state's standards in certain areas are less stringent than federal ones, you'll need to adhere to those stricter federal standards to avoid federal enforcement actions. If your state imposes standards that require more of employers than federal OSHA standards do, ensuring compliance means adhering to those stricter state regulations.
Additionally, if your state imposes standards on workplace safety issues that OSHA's federal standards do not, you will need to comply with those state standards to avoid state enforcement action.
Wading through all those regulations can be a monumental task. Many employers emerge from the experience feeling more confused and uncertain than they were before they started. So where can you find help in clarifying your obligations? If your state has an OSHA-approved occupational health and safety plan, many of these state-level plans offer on-site consultation services to help employers understand and comply with both state and federal requirements. OSHA also has an on-site consultation program, which lists your state’s consultant(s) and offers free and confidential safety and occupational health advice to businesses in all states.
Hiring a private industry consultant to help you develop a workplace safety program is another option for ensuring compliance with state and federal regulations. Many employers find that this is a more efficient route to ensuring compliance – and preventing workplace injuries – than going it alone or engaging with state or federal regulatory agencies. Just be sure that you choose a consultant with a solid, well-documented history of creating effective and legally defensible injury prevention programs.