Voluntary vs Mandatory Safety Guidelines: Does it Matter?

What’s the difference between a mandatory regulation and a voluntary requirement? That’s a big question to answer and an important one to tackle. Understanding the difference can be difficult, but it also might not be necessary. Because understanding what “voluntary” means when it comes to workplace safety might not be as “voluntary” as you might think. Companies that have a correct understanding of what OSHA’s expectations are regarding voluntary requirements will be a leader when it comes to keeping workers safe and costs under control.

OSHA takes a strong position when it comes to complying with an industry’s general consensus standards. OSHA’s General Duty clause is intertwined with voluntary requirements. That’s because OSHA will incorporate voluntary industry consensus standards when it defines regulations.

OSHA’s 1910.6(a)(1) “Incorporation by Reference” regulation states that “the standards of agencies of the U.S. Government, and organizations which are not agencies of the U.S. Government, which are incorporated by reference in this part, have the same force and effect as other standards in this part.”

This regulation references the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and American Welding Society (AWS), and was approved by the director of the Federal Register. Section 5(a)(1) states that “each employer shall furnish to each employee 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.”

What this all means is that OSHA’s General Duty clause states that employers have a duty to make the workplace safe. And that OSHA’s Incorporation by Reference states that even though voluntary industry consensus standards are not officially written into regulations, they still ought to be adopted.

For example, let’s say that “Company A” has just built a new warehouse and is setting up its emergency response plan, which will include first-aid requirements for the building. According to OSHA regulation 1910.151(b), first-aid supplies are required to be readily available. But that regulation doesn’t specifically say which supplies must be available. So OSHA references the ANSI standard Z308.1-1998 “Minimum Requirements for Workplace First-Aid Kits.” Here, OSHA is using the requirements of another organization (ANSI) to spell out what specific supplies must be in a first-aid kit. The ANSI regulation is voluntary, but in effect, it becomes required when adopted by OSHA in this way. That’s “Incorporation by Reference” in action.

So in effect, “voluntary requirements” are much less voluntary than you might think, when you correctly understand OSHA’s language and intent. When an industry consensus standard exists (like the ANSI example above), it is sufficient evidence that a hazard is “recognized” and that there is a reasonable way to correct and prevent a hazard. Companies that only focus on the minimum requirements of the law are missing the point. And because of that, OSHA has recently stated that their standards for safety incentive programs have been improved upon in accordance to the governmental standards. But companies that take a proactive approach about voluntary requirements will find that they are not only providing for the health and safety of their employees, but also following the intent of the regulations and are not in any gray area when it comes to worker compliance.

This merely touches on the surface of legality and regulations. There is also an ethical responsibility that employers ought to take into account. A company that has a genuine concern for the health and well-being of its employees will follow OSHA’s directive that they go “above and beyond” when it comes to adopting the safety standards that safety organizations like NFPA and ANSI have put together.

The foundation of a safety-first workplace culture is not built on mandatory OSHA requirements alone, but also knowing and implementing the voluntary national consensus standards. Gray area is not a safe area. Keep your company compliant and your employees safe by adopting all safety guidelines, including the “voluntary” ones.

Staying safe on the job is a combined effort. No matter if you have mandatory standards or you’re choosing to voluntarily protect yourself, do all you can do to keep yourself safe. Visit WorkingPerson.com for the items you need to keep yourself protected.

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