The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has historically shown a low profile in most healthcare institutions. Employee bulletin boards carry required health safety regulations in employee break rooms about worker rights, but most healthcare workers have never been through an inspection conducted by an OSHA official. This may change because healthcare is associated with more work-related injuries than many other industries, including construction.


Many OSHA requirements are included in the various inspection programs conducted by organizations that certify compliance. These requirements include mitigation of chemical and radiation hazards, ergonomics, personal protective equipment (PPE) and fall prevention. So OSHA’s influence has been present, but somewhat masked. It is possible that OSHA may take a more direct and active role.

A number of issues need to be kept in mind with OSHA. First, OSHA rules applies to employees, not patients or visitors, when the number of workers exceeds a specific threshold. Second, OSHA may not inspect some state and federal organizations that are inspected by other means. Third, OSHA inspectors are spread fairly thin, so they tend to inspect only if there is a complaint, news event or another specific trigger. If a hospital is unionized then this may impact the chances of a complaint. Fourth, just because you have never seen an OSHA inspector does not mean that one may not show up tomorrow.

The OSHA website ( provides a broad range of resources addressing worker safety and the federal health safety regulations involved. A particularly helpful interactive tool for healthcare is the Hospital eTool which outlines specific issues relevant to the various hospital departments.

In dealing with OSHA you need to pay attention to three broad topics:

  1. Engineering and administrative controls to reduce worker risk in general
  2. Worker protection
  3. Specific hazards

Medical scores and calculators with a health safety focus can play a role by helping to identify risks and provide evidence-based protocols for addressing those risks. A selection of scores and calculators are highlighted throughout the discussion below, and these are just a sampling of the more than 835 scores included in the Patient Safety Medal Pack, which breaks down the topic into main risk areas, including patient-centric concerns, physical and environmental concerns, infection control and hospital acquired infections, and medication-related safety concerns.

Engineering and Administrative Controls

The first line of defense for worker safety are engineering and administrative controls. These are measures that can reduce or eliminate worker risk by making changes to the system and culture. These may include:

  1. Employee health services and the handling of work-related injuries
  2. Worker education, especially for temporary and new employees
  3. Appropriate policies with evidence of compliance
  4. Respect for whistleblowers
  5. Evidence of hazard assessments and remediation by supervisors
  6. Interventions that reduce risk (such as lifts for moving patients and sharps reduction)
  7. Environmental monitoring

Worker Protection

If engineering and administrative controls cannot eliminate risk to a worker, then interventions are needed to protect the worker. This may take the form of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, gowns and gloves, or required vaccinations to reduce the risk of contracting several infectious diseases. These measures were highlighted by recent concerns about Ebola and other lethal arboviruses brought to the United States by travelers.

Specific Hazards

Healthcare workers are at increased risk for a number of specific hazards, so these must be specifically addressed. These include:

  1. Musculoskeletal injuries, especially to back and upper extremities
  2. Secondary exposure to chemotherapeutic drugs
  3. Chemical exposures (ethylene oxide, cleaners, etc)
  4. Fires, tissue vapors, anesthetic gases and other hazards in the operating rooms
  5. Slips and falls
  6. Violence
  7. Radiation hazards
  8. Risk from exposure to MRI magnets
  9. Emergency transport and helicopters
  10. Office ergonomics, including computer usage

Take-Home Message

At some time you may encounter an OSHA official in a healthcare institution. Being prepared and being familiar with OSHA health safety regulations can make the experience a lot less stressful. They can also make a hospital a whole lot safer for its workers.