What Is Occupational Safety and Why Does It Matter?

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An occupational safety professional consults with a colleague at a building site.Every day, millions of people go to work, and for each and every one of those workers, a safe work environment is crucial to their long-term health and wellness. Occupational safety professionals are the experts tasked with keeping workplaces and their workers safe.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that 165.7 million people worked at some point during 2020. While workplace fatalities have decreased over the years, the 2020 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) reported 4,764 fatalities in 2020, the equivalent to a fatality every 111 minutes from a work-related injury, making it clear that great strides are still to be made in occupational safety.

What occupational safety is able to improve involves not only the health and safety of employees but also protecting a company’s bottom line from unexpected losses. With their knowledge and skills gained from a degree in occupational safety, graduates can put strong, active strategies in place, protecting an organization and its employees now and into the future.

Understanding Occupational Safety

An occupational safety professional’s goal is to establish and foster a safe and healthy work environment. The long-term impact of a safe work environment affects all aspects of a business, from employee satisfaction and retention, to medical and legal repercussions, to a company’s public reputation. A strong occupational safety strategy is vital to a successful organization.

Many programs that occupational safety professionals establish follow the recommended practices that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) outlines. These practices allow organizations to meet OSHA’s standards of:

  • Preventing injury and illness. Use proactive strategies that reduce the risk of injury or illness before it happens.
  • Improving compliance with laws and regulations. Ensure an organization meets government or OSHA standards, allowing it to avoid penalties.
  • Reducing costs. Avoid preventable or additional costs to an organization or employees and allow organizations to lower premiums.
  • Engaging workers. Improve morale and provide a workplace that encourages dedication from employees.
  • Enhancing social responsibility. Make the shift toward more sustainable, environmentally friendly or increasingly efficient practices.
  • Increasing productivity. Maintain a workplace that allows employees to perform to the best of their abilities.

Using strategies gained from a higher education in occupational safety, graduates help workplaces regulate safety standards, implement active strategies promoting sustainable work practices, and form workplace organizations geared toward a positive social climate.

History of Occupational Safety

Currently, many laws and regulations protect the rights and safety of modern workers, but it took many years of advocacy to gain these protections.

What occupational safety is now has been the result of many years of hard work and support from organizations such as OSHA. From unions demanding fair hours, fair wages and better working conditions to the formation of OSHA and regulations addressing work-related illnesses or injuries, advocates have won a multitude of life-changing rights for workers.

High-Risk Industries

Just as safety standards and requirements vary by industry, some professions are at a much higher risk of injury than others and require stricter safety measures, oversight and regulation.

The BLS reports that in 2020 the field of moving and transportation and the fields of construction and extraction made up nearly half of all fatal occupational injuries. Transportation also accounted for many workplace fatalities in other industries.

What Are Workplace Hazards?

What constitutes an occupational safety hazard for one business compared to another can vary, but essentially, the definition encompasses any source of potential harm or damage at a workplace.

The risk and severity associated with workplace hazards depends on the industry. Hazards can occur in many situations involving the use of vehicles, powerful equipment or dangerous materials. This makes minimum safety or licensure standards crucial for industries such as construction or manufacturing.

In contrast, fields such as health care or the energy sector may require regulations and oversight for severe violations, including contamination, work-related illness and infection, or failure to properly implement preventive measures. Regardless of the industry, however, occupational safety professionals must be able to identify and address potential hazards.

What is considered an occupational safety hazard can take many forms, some of them seemingly innocuous. Small issues can often have much larger consequences. Some of the most common hazards follow:

Slips and Falls

Whether due to slippery floors, icy walkways, unsecured cables or equipment, or poorly marked steps, slips and falls cause a multitude of injuries. By posting appropriate signage and cleaning spills and organizing equipment, companies can reduce workplace falls.

Repetitive Motion

Many jobs require workers to perform the same motion repeatedly. Repetitive motion can result in eye strain or poor posture from sitting at a computer, tendonitis, or overuse strains and injuries from constantly using the same muscles. Employees can experience physical consequences that can be hard to reverse. Adjustments such as choosing ergonomic equipment or providing access to massage or physiotherapy can greatly improve employee health.

Indoor Air Quality

Indoor air quality is vital to worker health and productivity. Poor air quality, ventilation or temperature regulation can be dangerous and lead to costly health issues such as respiratory disorders; occupational asthma; and an increase in illness, infection and allergy.

Building a Safe Work Environment

Strategically developing safety standards and policies begins with a thorough understanding of how workers are most likely to get injured and mitigating those risks.

While some industries are much higher risk than others, every business should be cognizant of workplace hazards. Something as simple as cleaning up spills immediately to reduce the risk of falling, to choosing ergonomic equipment to address overuse injuries, to ensuring that a building is equipped with proper fire safety equipment can make all the difference in avoiding workplace injury and illness.

Working With OSHA

In the interest of raising standards and keeping organizations accountable, OSHA may administer severe penalties to companies for noncompliance and unsafe practices. As of 2022, a serious violation may incur a maximum penalty of $14,502 per violation, with additional fines of $14,502 per day if a company fails to abate the violation, plus a $145,027 penalty per willful or repeated violation.

Create a Culture of Safety

A safe and healthy work environment can be a deciding factor in a company’s long-term success. What occupational safety is goes far beyond a set of rules and regulations. It can improve the lives of employees and employee retention, decrease the risk of workplace-related injury or death, and cultivate a strong workplace culture and reputation.

Choosing a reputable program, such as Eastern Kentucky University’s online Bachelor of Science in Occupational Safety, can give graduates the real-world knowledge and skills they need to help others and reach their professional goals. Students can pursue their educational goals while continuing to serve as safety professionals, benefiting from experienced faculty and the opportunity to pursue professional opportunities, including internships and career development.

Discover how you can help safeguard organizations and their workers with a degree in occupational safety.

Recommended Reading

8 Environmental Health and Safety Careers You Should Consider

Keeping Workers Safe During an Epidemic or Pandemic

Reducing Driver, Pilot, and Machinery Operator Distractions


National Center for Biotechnology Information, “A Short History of Occupational Safety and Health in the United States”

Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Industry-Specific Resources

Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA Penalties

Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Recommended Practice for Safety and Health Programs

SHRM, “5 Common Office Hazards to Prevent”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Injuries, Illnesses, and Fatalities

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries in 2020

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Health and Safety Specialists and Technicians

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Work Experience of the Population — 2020

Verywell Health, “What Is Occupational Health and Safety?”

World Health Organization, Occupational Health