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August 13, 2018
Federal OSHA and Cal/OSHA: Comparing standards

When considering the effectiveness of workplace safety regulations, some debate whether strong standards alone are sufficient to protect workers or whether strong standards are of little value without equally strong enforcement. These questions often come up when comparing federal OSHA and Cal/OSHA, and, at least in the area of standard-setting, Cal/OSHA is significantly stricter than its federal counterpart.

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Under federal law, OSHA may approve state plans—that is, give a state the authority to implement and enforce standards OSHA issues under the federal Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act. Currently, 28 states have approved state plans. A state plan may duplicate the federal standards without alteration. Alternatively, a state plan may include standards that are more stringent than the federal counterparts. Under no circumstances may a state plan include provisions that, in the opinion of OSHA, are less stringent than the federal counterpart provisions.

California’s state plan was approved in 1973. Since then, Cal/OSHA, which administers the plan, has been aggressive in issuing standards that are either more stringent than federal OSHA’s baseline standards or that have no federal counterpart at all. When comparing federal OSHA and Cal/OSHA, it is important to emphasize that states generally have fewer obstacles to overcome in issuing regulations of any type than a federal agency, which must account for greater state-by-state diversity, demands from many more stakeholders, and pressure from more political leaders.

With that in mind and courtesy of the California Department of Industrial Relations (DIR), of which Cal/OSHA is a division, we provide several comparisons of federal OSHA and Cal/OSHA.

Stricter standards

Permissible exposure limits (PELs) for air contaminants. While federal OSHA is still using its original 1970 PELs for most substances, “Cal/OSHA reviews PELs continuously to determine if they should be updated,” says the DIR. Since the 1970s, Cal/OSHA has added to or revised its PELs more than 20 times. One example is acetone, a widely used solvent. Cal/OSHA’s PEL for acetone is 500 parts per million (ppm) compared to federal OSHA’s standard of 1,000 ppm.

Other Cal/OSHA non-PEL standards for airborne contaminants, which the DIR says are more protective than federal OSHA’s, address ventilation for laboratory-type hood operations, aerosol transmissible disease, and diseases transmitted from animals (zoonotics).

Process Safety Management (PSM). Cal/OSHA has two offices focused solely on PSM with dedicated staff. Federal OSHA “inspects under a National Emphasis Program, which only provides a ‘snapshot’ of operations at the time of the inspection,” says the DIR. “Cal/OSHA makes regular visits to facilities, to conduct Program Quality Verification reviews, respond to complaints, conduct fatality investigations, evaluate chemical releases and fires, and investigate explosions.”

Mining and tunneling. Cal/OSHA has regulatory authority over mining, milling, and finishing operations, whereas the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) covers only mining and milling. In tunnel safety, Cal/OSHA goes beyond MSHA by requiring all tunnel construction jobs to have a state-certified safety representative and gas tester on-site.

No federal counterpart

Diacetyl. Cal/OSHA adopted a standard in 2010 to regulate employee exposure to this food flavoring, which is used extensively in microwave popcorn and other food products. Acute exposure to diacetyl can lead to pulmonary problems, including bronchiolitis obliterans, a permanent and irreversible lung condition. Federal OSHA has no comparable standard.

High-rise window cleaning. Cal/OSHA has one of only two programs in the United States and is considered a national model.  Federal OSHA has no comparable program.

Injury and illness prevention program (IIPP). Implemented in the early 1990s, the California program has served as a model that federal OSHA has evaluated for possible adoption at the national level. This rule requires every employer to develop and implement a written safety and health program tailored to the specific workplace. Cal/OSHA’s IIPP rule is its most frequently cited violation.

Heat stress. While federal OSHA has conducted an awareness campaign around heat stress hazards for the past several years and can use the General Duty Clause to issue citations, Cal/OSHA has a specific heat illness prevention regulation for outdoor workers. The state is also working on a separate standard for indoor heat hazards, which is expected to be proposed by January 2019.

Repetitive motion injury (RMI). California adopted an RMI standard in the late 1990s. The standard applies to a job, process, or operation where an RMI has occurred to more than one employee under certain conditions. Every employer subject to this section must have a program that includes worksite evaluation, control of exposures, and training of employees. Federal OSHA has no comparable standard.

Workplace violence prevention in health care. California adopted a regulation requiring healthcare employers to implement Workplace Violence Prevention Plans and take other steps to protect workers from workplace violence. The state is currently in the process of developing a similar standard that would apply to general industry.

The Cal/OSHA/U.S. OSHA standards comparison sheet is at

Cal/OSHA Summit

To learn more about California’s workplace safety standards, regulatory developments on the horizon, and what you can do to stay in compliance, attend BLR’s upcoming Cal/OSHA Summit 2018.

The Cal/OSHA Summit, which will be held from October 17–19 in San Diego, is a leading state-specific event for California employers and safety professionals to get cutting-edge developments on new safety regulations, compliance strategies, and management tactics. Attendees will learn proven strategies for acing Cal/OSHA inspections, avoiding the most common compliance mistakes, delivering excellent safety performance results, and building a strong culture of safety throughout their organization. Register now.

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