What Is Occupational Health and Safety?

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Occupational health and safety is the area of public health that focuses on illness and injury trends in the workplace. Experts in the field use this knowledge to develop and implement strategies and regulations aimed at limiting hazards that could lead to physical or mental harm now or in the future.

The scope of occupational health and safety is broad, encompassing disciplines from hazardous materials and the spread of disease to ergonomics and violence prevention. Measures also touch work environments ranging from construction sites to office buildings.

Today, with the exception of people who are self-employed or working on a relative's farm, all employers—both private and public—have a legal responsibility to establish and maintain a safe and healthy environment.

This article defines the field of occupational health and safety, gives a brief history of it, looks at regulations and ongoing issues, and what careers are available in the field.

Steel workers fastening steel to crane in factory
Caiaimage / Agnieszka Olek / Getty Images

Workplace Safety: Then and Now

Working conditions for the average American have improved in fits and starts over the last 150 years, with major, economy-altering safety legislation passed and a steady stream of lesser regulations enacted under both major U.S. political parties in recent decades.

While there's still a ways to go, things like dangerous machinery, dimly-lit offices, and poorly ventilated factories are no more because of the work of occupational health and safety experts.

Efforts that started with a focus on manual labor jobs, such as factory workers, now involve all occupations in the United States. The field continues to grow, adapt, and make its mark on American history.

Post-Civil-War Era

The problem of workplace hazards became apparent in the wake of the Civil War. Factories cropped up across the U.S., often staffed by young, highly inexperienced workers.

Those factories were perilous places to work. They had dangerous equipment and machines, and they were dirty and poorly ventilated.

Many factory owners refused to open windows because the wind could disrupt their materials. That left workers breathing in things like chemical fumes, dust, and other particulate matter.

Awareness Grows

Stories compiled in an 1872 report by the state of Massachusetts’ Bureau of Labor detailed many grisly incidents where workers lost limbs or were killed due to inadequate equipment and physically demanding tasks.

In response, Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to require factory inspections that included verifying that facilities had safety features such as fire exits in place. Other states quickly followed suit.

By 1890, 21 states had some kind of law in the books limiting health hazards in the workplace.

Avoiding Regulations

While those early efforts were a step in the right direction, it was a messy assortment of laws and regulations. Rules differed from state to state and weren’t always enforced. That led

States with more relaxed policies attracted businesses away from stricter states, and a push was made to scale back regulations. A back-and-forth progression began as the public demanded stricter laws and businesses fought to loosen them.

Federal Law

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

The law gave the U.S. government authority to write and enforce safety and health standards for nearly all of the country's workforce. Shortly after, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) were established to oversee the implementation of the new law.

Improvements and additions to state and federal laws have been passed in the years since they were enacted, expanding the role of occupational health and safety professionals and going further to ensure safe workspaces for all.

Professionals That Help Keep You Safe on the Job

Many careers exist within the field of occupational health and safety, both in government agencies and private companies. A variety of degrees and certifications are available for people interested in the field, as well.

Some occupational health and safety jobs are as follows. Even if you're not personally considering a career in occupational health, this gives you a sense of just how nuanced the field is and all of the measures that are taken to keep workplaces safe.

  • Safety specialists: Experts in government regulations; help organizations create a safe environment; may create or run safety education programs.
  • Safety technicians: Assist safety specialists; collect and analyze data; evaluate potential hazards; conduct tests to determine better safety practices.
  • Safety trainer: Creates and runs training programs that help employees maintain a safe workplace; may specialize in mitigating workplace risks for a specific industry.
  • Safety manager: Oversees workplace safety for a company; implements and monitors safety standards based on local and federal guidelines; run safety drills and education programs.
  • Safety engineer: Develop technology aimed at improving workplace safety; or develop products that are safe for customers or employees to use.
  • Construction inspectors: Ensure new construction follows local and federal building codes and other regulations.
  • Intelligence analyst: Gather and analyze data and evidence regarding the safety of an organization and/or its clients; develop safety practices for their organization; may specialize in an area like cybersecurity or industrial safety.
  • Safety coordinator: Develops and monitors health and safety standards for a company; ensures adherence to local and federal guidelines.
  • Injury prevention specialist: Minimize risk of accidents and injuries for a company; evaluate potential hazards and work with management to come up with solutions.
  • Environmental protection agent: Identifies possible contributions to pollution or climate change; develops environmentally friendly alternatives or fixes.
  • Occupational health nurse: Diagnoses and treats health issues for a group or organization; may specialize in the unique hazards of a particular industry; implements programs to improve employee health and safety.
  • Fire inspector: Identifies potential hazards that could lead to a fire or explosion; ensures adherence to fire codes; typically work for government agencies but some are in the private sector.
  • Well-being manager: Creates and runs programs to support workers' physical and mental health.
  • Industrial hygienist: Anticipate and try to prevent workplace hazards; has specialized knowledge of biological and physical materials that could cause health or safety problems; implements strategies to minimize risks.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to the creation of at least one new workplace health and safety job. Because social distancing is often not possible on professional film, video, and photography shoots, COVID-19 compliance officers were created to help people stay as safe as possible.

How Occupational Health Measures Impact You

Over the past 200 years, regulations have meant continuous, steady drops in accident and fatality rates across most industries in the United States.

Though little data exists on pre-OSHA workplace safety, it's estimated that the number of workplace fatalities since regulations were put in place has decreased by more than 65%. That's despite dramatic increases in the country's workforce.

This doesn't mean that workplace health and safety is no longer an issue, though. Nearly three million people still suffer some kind of serious work-related injury or illness every year in the U.S. Millions more are exposed to environmental health hazards that could cause issues years later.

This only enforces the important and continued role of occupational health and safety professionals.

Employee Benefits

Workers benefit greatly from occupational health and safety measures. For example, due to regulations being in place:

  • Inspection and oversight regimens help identify unsafe conditions.
  • Modern data-driven workplace safety programs proactively identify risks and help employers tackle the underlying conditions that put workers in danger in the first place.
  • Legal recourse is available against negligent or unsafe employers. If you get injured on the job, you won’t go bankrupt thanks to workers’ compensation.

You can learn about all of your rights regarding your work environment by reading OSHA's Workers' Rights guide.

Employer Benefits

While such regulations can pose a burden to businesses, they benefit from them as well.

Injuries and illnesses can lead to lost productivity, higher turnover, and more expensive employer-subsidized health insurance premiums. Regulations provide a data-drive framework of steps that can help an employer avoid these issues.

It has even become common for larger employers to establish workplace health and safety programs that go beyond what's legally required. 

Workers' Comp Claims

Workers' compensation claims total more than a billion dollars a week. That doesn’t even account for the loss of wages and other indirect expenses, such as decreased productivity and the psychological toll of experiencing or caring for someone with an injury.

Ongoing Issues

The issues studied and regulated by occupational health and safety experts today vary widely by occupation.

For example, physical threats like tall heights and heavy machinery might be of greater concern to construction workers, whereas mental health and repetitive stress injuries might be the focus of office environments.

Despite massive improvements to workplace standards, there are a number of safety and health concerns in America's workforce where much work can be done. 

Falls

Hundreds of workers in the United States die from falls incurred on the job each year. While these incidents are almost entirely preventable, falls are the leading cause of fatalities among construction workers.

For many builders, working from tall heights is unavoidable, but with proper safety precautions, deaths and injuries can be avoided. These precautions should start before the work even begins during the earliest part of the planning stages.

Employers should include the cost of safety equipment, like harnesses, scaffolds, and fall arrest systems, into the project's work estimate, so that every worker has access to and is trained to use the equipment they need.  

Heat Illness

According to OSHA, dozens of workers die every year from working in extreme heat or humid conditions, and thousands more become ill. The biggest proportion of these instances happen in the construction industry, but it can happen to anyone working in an environment that isn't properly climate controlled.

Employers are legally obligated under federal law to ensure that work environments are free from safety hazards. That includes extreme temperatures.

For its part, OSHA is encouraging business owners and managers to protect their workers from heat-related illness and injury through a messaging campaign that encourages them to provide water, rest, and shade to all employees—especially when the heat index is 91 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.

Repetitive Stress Injuries

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

This type of repetitive activities day in and day out can cause injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome and even eye strain. The tendency of modern workers to also use poor posture while using electronic devices (both on and off the clock) can also contribute to long-term pain, lost productivity, and medical costs.

Many employers find that investing in ergonomics and office-based safety initiatives (such as targeting slips, trips, and falls) actually has a positive return on investment once lost productivity and employer medical costs are considered.

Non-Fatal Injuries

Many people envision workplace safety primarily in terms of traditionally risky industries like construction, deep-sea fishing, or logging. Indeed, these sectors experience some of the highest fatal accident numbers for U.S. workers.

However, non-fatal injuries and illnesses tell a significantly different story. These injuries can result in significant losses to productivity, as more than half of these injuries result in days away from work—not to mention the added burden of treatment costs and human pain.

Sedentary Behavior

As the workforce has moved from manual labor to desk jobs, the U.S. population has become increasingly sedentary. Office workers often 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 consequences for your health, including increasing your risk for obesity, blood clots, and death.

Only 53.3% of American adults get the recommended amount of aerobic physical activity and only 23.2% get both enough aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity each week. Even that, however, might not be sufficient to stave off the risks of being tied to a desk.

One study found that those who sat for a cumulative 12.5 hours per day (not outside the realm of possibility for commuting office workers who like to relax on the couch) were more likely to die from all causes than those who were more active, moving around at least every 30 minutes.

This was the case regardless of whether individuals worked out regularly. Sitting for too long too often can have devastating consequences over time. 

A Word From Verywell

Just about anyone who's considered an employee benefits from occupational health and safety regulations. They've come a long way since Massachusetts first started checking for fire escapes.

While these laws and rules may sometimes seem extreme or complicate your job, keep in mind that they work—statistically speaking, you're much safer on the job now than your grandparents were, and they were safer than their grandparents.

Workplace health and safety is complicated and different from one industry to another, and even between workplaces from the same industry. That's led to several agencies, organization, and professions that help oversee and improve employee safety.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can I check that my workplace is safe?

    You can request a representative of OSHA inspect your workplace to determine if there are any safety violations. A worker or someone who represents them can make this request or file a complaint about a working environment.

  • What are common workplace hazards?

    Dangers vary by industry. There are six types of hazards: biological, chemical, ergonomic, work organization, safety, or physical. Some specific situations that make workplaces unsafe include fall hazards (wet floors, ladders, etc.), eye strain, fire risks, poor air quality, and heat.

20 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Robyn Correll, MPH
Robyn Correll, MPH holds a master of public health degree and has over a decade of experience working in the prevention of infectious diseases.