The Difference Between Federal and State OSHA

While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is the most well-known source of workplace safety standards, state agencies also create regulations that protect workers from on-the-job injury or illness. In order to stay compliant, employers must follow the right set of standards — and the differences between federal and state laws can be considerable.

Let’s start at the federal level. OSHA is a national agency committed to protecting worker’s health and safety while minimizing workplace endangerment. The Administration was created “to ensure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance,” a task it pursues through enforcement of the many OSHA standards listed in the Code of Federal Regulations.

While these federal safety regulations enforce the basic protections employers must afford to their workers, most states (27 of them, to be exact) have enacted their own additional workplace safety regulations to fill the gaps. That’s by design — OSHA actually encourages states to create their own workplace safety rules, and many state regulations are relatively strict.

Why States Create Their Own Occupational Safety Programs

States have various reasons for creating their own regulations. Some operated their own safety administrations prior to OSHA’s establishment, for instance, and weren’t in a hurry to abandon their efforts. Other states built their own workplace safety agencies to cover state and local government employees, who are otherwise not included in any federal regulations. Still others wish to address state-specific workplaces that aren’t covered under the federal administration’s broad guidelines. In any case, federal OSHA must review and approve any state-specific workplace safety plan.

These varying regulations can be confusing for employers. Some states rely on OSHA to provide all their workplace safety regulations. Others accept OSHA’s rules and add to them. Currently, 22 states administer their own plans covering both private and public sector employees, while 5 states administer plans covering only public sector employees.

How Federal and State OSHA Plans Are Different

Employers must fully understand the intricacies of these laws, especially when operating in more than one state. Some specific ways a state plan could differ from a federal plan:

  • State plans tend to be more reactive to local needs. For instance, some outline readiness measures for natural disasters, while others have regulations for industries that largely operate within that state.
  • Five state plans specifically cover public sector employees, such as firefighters, law enforcement and emergency responders, leaving federal OSHA rules to govern private industry. Those states are Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Maine. The same is true for the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  • State plans often have programs promoting worker safety and health, which aren’t required by federal OSHA regulations.
  • Some state plans require more detailed reporting of workplace injuries and illnesses than federal rules.

Federal OSHA standards set the bare minimum of safety standards — in other words, no state is allowed to implement a safety plan with less coverage than OSHA’s. State plans are rigorously checked and re-authorized each year through an OSHA-run process called Federal Annual Monitoring Evaluation (FAME), which ensures a baseline level of safety and prevents states from undermining OSHA’s basic recommendations.

Again, employers must comply with both federal and state OSHA. To find out how your state’s safety regulations affect your business, visit your state’s OSH website or view our detailed state compliance article to learn more.