What Is Occupational Health and Safety?

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. Today, most employers—both private and public—have a legal responsibility to establish and maintain a safe and healthy environment for their workers.

There are a few exceptions; for example, these rules do not protect people who are self-employed or farm workers who are immediate family members of the farm owner.

This article defines the field of occupational health and safety, gives a brief history, looks at regulations and ongoing issues, and discusses career opportunities in the field of occupational health and safety.

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Workplace Safety: Then and Now

Working conditions for the average American have improved over the last 150 years. In recent decades, major, economy-altering safety legislation has been passed, along with lesser regulations.

While there’s still work to be done, things like dangerous machinery, dimly lit offices, and poorly ventilated factories have been eliminated 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 and adapt.

Post-Civil-War Era

The problem of workplace hazards became apparent after the Civil War. Factories operating across the U.S. were often staffed by young, highly inexperienced workers and were dangerous places to work.

These factories were equipped with dangerous machinery, 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 chemical fumes, dust, and other particulate matter.

Awareness Grows

Stories compiled in an 1873 report by the state of Massachusetts’ Bureau of Labor detailed many 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 limiting health hazards in the workplace.

Avoiding Regulations

While those early efforts were a step in the right direction, they were often a confusing assortment of laws and regulations. Rules differed from state to state and weren’t always enforced. That led to the movement of businesses from state to state.

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

In December of 1970, then-President Richard Nixon signed into law the Occupational Safety and Health Act. This was 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.

This list of jobs in occupational health offers a look at how nuanced the field is and all the measures that are taken to keep workplaces safe:

  • Safety specialist: Expert in government regulations; helps organizations create a safe environment; may create or run safety education programs
  • Safety technician: Assists safety specialists; collects and analyzes data; evaluates potential hazards; conducts 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; runs safety drills and education programs
  • Safety engineer: Develops technology aimed at improving workplace safety; or develops products that are safe for customers or employees to use
  • Construction inspector: Ensures new construction follows local and federal building codes and other regulations
  • Intelligence analyst: Gathers and analyzes data and evidence regarding the safety of an organization and/or its clients; develops safety practices for an 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: Minimizes risk of accidents and injuries for a company; evaluates potential hazards and works 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 works for government agencies but may also be employed in the private sector
  • Well-being manager: Creates and runs programs to support workers’ physical and mental health
  • Industrial hygienist: Anticipates and tries 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 was 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.

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.

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, employers can 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.

Types of Occupational Health 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. 

Physical Hazards

Employers are legally obligated under federal law to ensure that work environments are free from physical hazards, or conditions that can cause physical harm to a person without any type of contact.

  • 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 largest proportion of these instances occur in the construction industry, but it can happen to anyone working in an environment that isn’t properly climate controlled. Business owners and managers should provide water, rest, and shade to all employees—especially when the heat index is 91 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.
  • Radiation: Employers are obligated to protect employees from both ionizing and non-ionizing radiation. Some examples of non-ionizing radiation include microwaves and radiowaves. Examples of ionizing radiation include X-ray machines and computed tomography (CT) equipment. 
  • Sunlight/UV exposure: Workers who spend a lot of time in the sun should be equipped with eyewear and sunscreen to protect them from exposure to harmful ultraviolet rays.

Biological Hazards

Biological hazards may be encountered whenever people work with animals, certain hazardous plants, or people, especially in medical settings. Workers who are likely to come into contact with biological hazards should be equipped with appropriate safety gear such as surgical gloves and masks.

Biological hazards include things like:

  • Bodily fluids: This includes blood, vomit, and diarrhea.
  • Pathogens: This includes microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi.
  • Mold: Mold can cause respiratory problems, especially in sensitive individuals.
  • Plants: Certain kinds of outdoor work may expose workers to hazardous plants such as poison ivy, poison oak, devil’s club, and stinging nettle.
  • Biting insects: Biting insects include mosquitoes, venomous spiders, and ticks. Ticks and mosquitoes can spread chronic diseases such as Lyme disease and zika virus.
  • Animals: Certain workers may also be exposed to venomous snakes such as rattlesnakes or disease-carrying animals such as rodents and bats. Even domestic animals like dogs can pose a potential safety hazard.
  • Animal feces: Animal feces can spread viruses, bacteria, and parasites.

Chemical Hazards

Chemical hazards include liquid, gas, and solid chemicals that can cause skin irritation, illness, or breathing problems. Workers using these chemicals should wear safety gear including protection for the eyes and respirators. Examples of chemical hazards include:

  • Liquids: Paints and solvents, cleaning products, and pesticides can cause contact injury. Long-term exposure to certain chemicals can cause chronic illnesses such as cancer.
  • Gases and fumes: This includes gases such as carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide and vapors/fumes that are produced during activities like welding or using paints and solvents.
  • Flammable substances: Substances like gasoline, liquefied petroleum gas, and paints and lacquers may catch fire or cause explosions.
  • Dust hazards: Sawing and sanding can expose workers to dust, which can irritate the lungs and cause breathing problems. Some types of dust like silica and asbestos can be extremely hazardous and can cause long-term health problems.

Ergonomic Hazards

  • Poor posture: Many U.S. workers work almost exclusively on computers. Incorrect posture while using electronic devices (both on and off the clock) and workstations that are incorrectly adjusted can contribute to long-term pain, lost productivity, and medical costs.
  • Repetitive stress: Repetitive activities such as typing, warehousing, and factory work can cause repetitive stress injuries such as eye strain and carpal tunnel syndrome.

Many employers find that investing in ergonomics actually has a positive return on investment once lost productivity and employer medical costs are considered.

Safety Hazards

Safety hazards include anything in the environment that can cause injury, such as spills and other tripping hazards or tasks that require ladders or scaffolds. 

  • Machinery: Machinery that isn’t equipped with safety features such as guards can cause catastrophic injury. Even well-maintained equipment can pose a safety hazard when operated by untrained or distracted employees.
  • Electrical hazards: Frayed and otherwise damaged electrical cords and wiring that is incorrectly installed can create a shock hazard.
  • 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, in the project’s work estimate, so that every worker has access to and is trained to use the equipment they need.  

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 result in days away from work. There is also 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 and during their daily commute and leisure time.

A sedentary lifestyle can have major consequences for your health, including increasing your risk for obesity, blood clots, and death.

Only 46.9% of American adults get the recommended amount of aerobic physical activity and only 24.2% get both enough aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity each week. Even that, however, might not be sufficient to lessen the health impacts of long-term desk work.

One study found that those who sat for a cumulative 12.5 hours per day 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. 


Occupational health and safety is the field of assessing workplace safety and preventing on-the-job accidents. 

Workplace safety laws and regulations have come a long way since the Civil War, but there is still work to be done to ensure safety across workplaces of all types.

Some of the hazards workers commonly encounter include exposure to extreme conditions, biological and chemical hazards, repetitive stress, and safety hazards. Accidents in the workplace can often be avoided by equipping employees with safety gear and making sure workplaces are free from unnecessary hazards. 


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