Learn what you need to know in less than 5 minutes. A Comprehensive Guide for Everyday Use.

The acronym, “OSHA” is familiar to most workers as it pertains to workplace safety and employee rights. As such, it may seem strange to think about how language services, such as interpreting, could connect to any kind of occupational risk. However, interpreters are often needed for a session in an environment where reasonable protections need to be in place. In some cases, interpreters are entitled to the same protections as other employees. Thus, employers must understand OSHA regulations as they apply to their usual employees and independent contractors. Additionally, interpreters are encouraged to familiarize themselves with these regulations to ensure they feel comfortable while on assignment. In this article, we will cover what OSHA means for any employee and employer.

OSHA

OSHA training courses

OSHA training courses are usually focused on helping employers create a non-hazardous space for all present. Given that almost all private businesses are required to comply with the Act’s guidelines, there’s something for everyone to learn. Global Arena’s course is no exception, but it goes further by considering how these issues apply to onsite interpreters. Even if you think you know everything about occupational safety, a refresher to cover these finer points is always useful. The course’s modules cover a range of topics:

History of OSHA

Acronym

So what is OSHA? OSHA stands for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and is part of the United States Department of Labor. To best understand OSHA and its standards, one must first look at the separate components that make the acronym.

O: Occupational: pertaining to work and workplaces. The goal of OSHA is to “assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education, and assistance.”

S: Safety: OSHA exists to inspect workplaces and ensure that government standards are being upheld. The ultimate goal is to prevent workers from being seriously injured or killed while on the job.

H: Health: OSHA also includes standards to limit exposure to chemical hazards at work and to offer medical testing when appropriate.

A: Administration: Congress created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1970. It exists as part of the United States Department of Labor. The Department of Labor formed the Administration to enforce the standards outlined by the OSH Act.

OSHA was created following the passing of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSH Act) of 1970. This era included rapid industrial developments in the USA. Prior to the OSH Act, industrial workers had to rely on labor unions for protection or compensation after an accident. One motivation for the law was to stem these accidents before they happened. The goal is to avoid both employee concerns and employer predicaments. Richard Nixon signed the Act into law on December 29, 1970. The OSH Act is distinguished from the Administration responsible for enforcement.

Purpose

The purpose of the OSH Act is to prevent workers from being seriously injured or killed while on the job. The OSH Act sets health and safety standards to which all private sector employers and workplaces must adhere. The best way to summarize OSH Act is by using the General Duty Clause: “29 U.S.C. § 654, 5(a)1: Each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” In layman’s terms, an employer must keep their employees safe by addressing everything that could reasonably cause harm.

Note that there are exceptions to the rules: some family businesses and government entities are not required to be compliant. Furthermore, there are several cases where independent contractors and other non-employee workers aren’t protected. However, other laws usually cover these cases. Regardless, it’s wise to follow OSHA guidelines of your own volition. The guidelines are comprehensive standards created to be mutually beneficial to employees and employers. An ideal workplace is a safe workplace.

Employer and Employee Responsibilities:

Everyone in a company has a level of responsibility to pay attention to the workspace, watching out for possible hazards. As an employee, one must document issues as they’re found and bring them to the attention of managers. Managers and other administrators must then immediately try to rectify any situation that causes employees risk or unease. Given OSHA’s industrial heritage, one goal of this process is to vertically build trust through open communication and mutual respect. If employees feel that their needs are not being met or even addressed, it aggravates any accident that might occur.

The following list of Employer/Employee responsibilities gives an overview of OSHA guidelines for the general workplace. A “General Workplace” is defined as a workplace without specific industrial or otherwise unusual risks. General workplaces include offices, schools, retail businesses, non-chemical fabrication plants, and the like. A general workplace includes both “highly-skilled” employees and support staff. Support staff often lack the specialized training of their “highly-skilled” counterparts and are thus in need of extra protection measures.

OSHA Guidelines for the General Workplace:

  • Chemical hazards: Employers must inform workers about chemical hazards and minimize risk. Employers can accomplish this through proper labeling, training, alarms, color-coded systems, chemical information sheets and other methods.
  • Language: All safety and training must happen in a language and with vocabulary that workers can easily understand
  • Records: The employer must keep records of all work-related injuries and illnesses
  • Testing: The employer must perform regular health testing, such as air sampling, in the workplace.
  • Protective Equipment: Employers must provide personal protective equipment to their employees at no cost.
  • Medical Tests: Some employment fields must provide hearing or other medical tests at no cost to their employees. This is dependent on OSH Act standards.
  • Access to Information: Employers must post OSHA citations as well as annual workplace illness and injury summary data. They must also post the official “OSHA Job Safety and Health – It’s the Law” poster where employees can see it.
  • Non-retaliation: Employers may not retaliate or discriminate against a worker who uses their rights to report a workplace-related illness or injury.

Worker Rights:

As well as regulating employer standards, OSHA also protects and establishes employee rights in the workplace. This is vital to understanding OSHA and the OSH Act and is key to applying OSHA standards to daily life. OSHA and the OSH Act protect workers as well as employers, making the Act a revolutionary piece of legislation. For all of American history prior to the Act, workers were traditionally treated as expendable. Particularly in factories and other mass manufacturing facilities, worker safety was secondary to profit.

The 1960s introduced a growing awareness of how industrial chemicals impacted the environment and, especially, the workers exposed to them. On January 28, 1968, President Lyndon B Johnson introduced a bill designed to protect workers from these effects. This bill is a clear precursor to the OSH Act, but was unfortunately struck down as “too strict.” Businesses were uncomfortable with the “mandatory” nature of the guidelines. Economists theorized that if put into law, the bill would slow the economy to a stopping point.

Richard Nixon proposed new legislation: bills that would later become the OSH act and lead to the formation of OSHA. These 1969 bills suggested that workplace safety conditions be advisory rather than mandatory. The bills offered an opening for stricter legislation proposals (similar to Johnson’s bill of the previous year). The stricter bills were finally passed and signed into law.

Empowered workers are safe workers and knowing your rights as an employee is paramount in creating a safe workplace. Worker rights and employer responsibilities work hand in hand to ensure the best possible environment for all.

Worker Rights in the General Workplace:

  • Conditions: Workers have the right to workplace conditions that do not pose a risk of serious harm.
  • Confidentiality: Workers may file a confidential complaint or report to OSHA to have their workplace inspected.
  • Training: Workers must receive information and training about hazards, harm-prevention methods, and OSH Act standards that apply to their workplace. The training and information must be in a language and vocabulary that workers can easily understand.
  • Records: Workers have the right to receive copies of any health testing done in their workplace. This includes monitoring to find and measure hazards as well as reports of work-related illnesses and injuries.
  • Participate: Workers may participate in an OSHA inspection and speak in private with the inspector.
  • File a complaint: Workers have the right to file a complaint with OSHA. This also applies if they’ve been retaliated or discriminated against for requesting an inspection. Workers may file a complaint for discrimination following the use of any of their other rights under the OSH Act. Workers also have the right to act as “whistleblowers” under the 21 additional federal laws for which OSHA has jurisdiction.

Who is required to adhere to OSHA Standards?

OSHA standards apply to most private sector businesses in the United States with more than ten employees. The standards also apply to some public sector employers and workers. However, there are a few notable exceptions:

  • Self-employed people
  • Farms that only employ immediate family members
  • People who employ others for domestic services, such as childcare or housekeeping
  • Churches and religious activities
  • Businesses that are governed by federal agencies

States are encouraged to develop their own job safety and health standards that are comparable to OSHA standards. The goal is that states create standards that are at least effective as OSHA regulation at the federal level.

Workers for whom OSHA standards technically don’t apply still have resources in the Administration. These workers have the right to make complaints and reports to their federal OSHA regional administrator if they deem it necessary. When a non-covered worker makes such a complaint, the OSHA regional office determines the necessary follow-up steps. There’s no guarantee of an official inspection but a follow-up with the Department of Labor is possible.

Are Independent Contractors Covered by OSHA Regulations?

Employee v. Independent Contractor

The General Duty Clause specifies terms such as “each employer” and “each employee.” However, an independent contractor isn’t an “employee,” as such. Independent Contractors aren’t taxed in the same way as “employees” and “employers” have different responsibilities regarding their safety and care. OSHA does state legal definitions for “employer” and “employee” on their website, www.osha.gov:

  • “The term ‘employer’ is defined as a person engaged in a business affecting commerce who has employees, but does not include the United States (not including the United States Postal Service) or any State or political subdivision of a State.”
  • “The term ‘employee’ is defined as an employee of an employer who is employed in a business of [the] employer which affects commerce.”

Working interpreters are often considered independent contractors, rather than employees. Therefore, it can be difficult to tell if they’re covered by OSHA regulations. The OSH Act is written in such a way that it allows courts to decide what constitutes an “employee.” Regardless, having a safe environment for all actors involved in any professional activity or scenario is an absolute necessity.

Common Law vs. Economic Reality

Courts determine whether an individual is an employee or an independent contractor with standard tests: Common Law and Economic Reality. Common Law is straightforward. The Social Security Administration defines it thus:

“The common law control test is the basic test, using the common law rules, for determining whether a relationship exists between the worker and the person or firm that they work for. Under the common-law test, the employer has the right to tell the employee what to do, how, when, and where to do the job.”

The Economic Reality test uses six questions to determine whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor:

  • Is the worker’s work an everyday part of the paying party’s business? If the worker (in this case, interpreter) provides a service used every day, it’s a strong argument for employee treatment.
  • Who owns the tools used in the work?: “Tools” has a broad definition: the term “tool” constitutes anything used during the work session. Interpreters often bring their own “tools:” dictionaries, notepads, pens, etc. This is an argument for treating an interpreter as an Independent Contractor, rather than as an employee.
  • Does the worker face a risk of loss or chance of profit while doing the work?: Independent contractors assume risk and opportunities associated with individual jobs. Employees receive the same pay regardless of the job outcome.
  • Does the work require specialized knowledge and/or skill?: Independent contractors generally have specialized field knowledge and/or skills. This is often unnecessary for employees.
  • Is the work contracted on a project by project basis or is there a more permanent relationship?: Employees are typically considered “permanent staff;” independent contractors are more transient.
  • Who controls the work processes?: If a manager can dictate the work processes used, the people completing the project are most likely employees. Independent contractors have greater leeway in deciding how to achieve an outcome.

Courts typically use a combination of both methods to determine if a worker is an independent contractor or an employee.

Are Interpreters covered under OSHA?

As discussed, OSHA protects only employees and not independent contractors. However, the role of the interpreter is highly varied: often, an interpreter is, in fact, an employee. Interpreters working for one entity, such as a hospital or a school, with a steady job are typically employees. An interpreter working with an agency is typically an independent contractor and thus is not covered by OSHA standards.

Though interpreters working as independent contractors aren’t technically covered by OSHA standards, personal safety is still a must. All interpreters should be cognizant of their surroundings and potential threats to their safety. If in question, immediately report an event or potentially unsafe environment to your supervisor or interpreting manager.

OSHA Goals:

Data collection and Results

One of the aims of OSHA is to collect data to better identify workplace hazards and create statistics. These statistics can be used to inspire and form injury and illness prevention programs. In 2019, OSHA determined that the top ten most commonly violated standards pertained to:

  1. Fall protection, construction
  2. Hazard communication standard, general industry
  3. Scaffolding, general requirements,
  4. Control of hazardous energy (lockout/tagout), general industry
  5. Respiratory protection, general
  6. Ladders, construction
  7. Powered industrial trucks, general industry
  8. Fall Protection–Training Requirements
  9. Machinery and Machine Guarding, general requirements
  10. Eye and Face Protection

Through data tracking and the creation and enforcement of OSHA standards, worker deaths are down. The change is (on average) from about 38 worker deaths/day in 1970 to 14/day in 2017. Worker injuries and illnesses are down from 10.9 incidents per 100 workers in 1972 to 2.8 per 100 in 2017.

Inspections

OSHA also conducts regular inspections. These inspections ensure that covered organizations meet or exceed OSHA safety standards. Inspection priorities include:

  • Imminent danger situations: hazards that could cause death or serious physical harm
  • Severe injuries and illnesses: employers must report work-related fatalities within 8 hours and work-related inpatient hospitalizations, amputations, or losses of an eye within 24 hours
  • Worker complaints: allegations of hazards or violations
  • Referrals of hazards from other federal, state, or local agencies, individuals, organizations, and the media
  • Targeted inspections: inspections aimed at specific, high-hazard industries or individual workplaces that have received high rates of injuries or illnesses
  • Follow ups: checks for abatement of past violation areas.

Inspection Processes:

Managers should arrange for regularly scheduled visits by OSHA inspectors to verify that their workplaces are performing their due diligence. Many businesses, even seemingly low-risk offices, have OSHA guidelines and a record of compliance posted somewhere for employees to see. An important component here is awareness: everyone should know the rules, what they entail, and how to follow them. Knowing the inspection process will help you navigate an inspection. Keep in mind that the easiest way to pass is to follow the rules in the first place.

Preparing for an Inspection:

The best preparation for an OSHA inspection is to be constantly vigilant about health and safety hazards in your workplace.

Here are a couple of tips to prepare for a successful inspection:

  • Keep a copy of the complete set of OSHA standards for reference.: Take time to review specific situations covered by the standards that could apply to your workplace.
  • Keep copies of all manufacturing guides and literature.: Have the necessary guides accessible at all times to be sure that your equipment is working within established parameters.
  • Organize a continuing effort to minimize risk.: Encourage employees to actively report potentially hazardous situations. This doesn’t have to necessarily pertain to OSHA standards but just with common sense and an eye to safety.
  • Establish a safety director.: This safety director should be no more than “two steps” away from the main authority at a site.
  • Know your rights.: You can always ask an OSHA inspector to postpone an inspection if they arrive at an inconvenient time. An “inconvenient time” is self-defined by the company, such as during a deadline push. Keep in mind that the inspector may still want to see files or take a quick look at the workspace. This is within their rights, even if they’re willing to delay the walk around.

Inspection Procedure:

  1. Preparation: An OSHA compliance officer reads through the past inspection reports and compile a list of the standards most likely to apply. They also gather the appropriate protective equipment and testing instruments.
  2. Credential Presentation: The OSHA compliance officer arrives at the inspection site and shows the appropriate party their credentials. This includes a photo ID and a serial number.
  3. Opening Conference: The OSHA compliance officer discusses the scope of their inspection, areas of inspection, walkaround procedures, employee representation, and employee interviews. An authorized employee representative also has the right to accompany the OSHA inspector. The compliance officer will consult privately with a reasonable number of employees.
  4. Walkaround: The OSHA compliance office walks through portions of the workplace, looking for code violations. They take note of anything that could lead to employee injury and illness. The compliance officer may point out hazards as they see them so that they can be corrected immediately. While they’ll still be cited, the correction is a show of good faith on the part of the employer. Compliance officers try to minimize workday disruption and keep any trade secrets they observe confidential.
  5. Closing Conference: After the walkaround, the OSHA compliance officer discusses their findings with the employer and employee representative. They’ll also list possible courses of action and outline how to contest the results if necessary.

OSHA Violations:

Despite employers’ best efforts, violations—inadequate protection from a hazard, a developing structural problem in the office—sometimes sneak through. When this happens, it is incumbent upon anyone who observes the violation to immediately report it to their manager. OSHA has strict reporting and risk mitigation procedures that must be understood by all employees at all levels. The easiest way to fail an inspection is to neglect the OSHA Preparation steps when problems arise.

So, as an employer, you may still be wondering: where do interpreters fit in?

If you employ interpreters on a construction site or in an industrial plant, OSHA standards are clearly relevant. Interpreters should be cognizant of possible risks or violations, obvious or otherwise, in any workspace. It’s also understandable to need interpreters during a company-wide OSHA training, for businesses that employ limited English-speaking people. In this case, the interpreter receives the benefit of the training while interpreting for their colleagues.

Including interpreters in your company OSHA trainings fulfills your employer responsibilities under “language.” When a company schedules a session about how to handle inspections and violations, everyone should be able to understand everything. If you’re an interpreter, knowing the finer points of the regulation can help you better articulate this information to others. Unfortunately, there are also moments where a legal interpreter may be needed after an accident or injury. Having an understanding of OSHA regulations in the courtroom is highly beneficial for such cases.

It’s difficult to understate the benefits of this more nuanced understanding. Following OSHA regulations can be distilled to a single, straightforward principle: workplaces should be safe. As businesses are legally held to a certain standard of risk management; everyone within them should be aware of that standard. By completing an OSHA training module, you can rest assured that you have the requisite knowledge to handle risky situations.

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