The U.S. Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which resulted in the formation of two federal agencies: the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). These agencies were established to reduce and prevent work-related injuries, illnesses, and deaths. Although both organizations focus on work-related health issues, they serve distinct purposes and are located in different branches of the U.S. government. Often, NIOSH and OSHA work together in an effort to protect worker health and safety.

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)

As part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, NIOSH was established to conduct research and make recommendations pertaining to work-related injury and illness prevention. Head-quartered in Washington, D.C., NIOSH has offices and research laboratories in Cincinnati, Ohio; Morgan-town, West Virginia; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Spokane, Washington. Although all research facilities assess occupational health, most of the NIOSH investigations on occupational stress are conducted by researchers at the Cincinnati office. In 1996, NIOSH and more than 500 partners developed the National Occupational Research Agenda (NORA), which identified 21 priority areas (e.g., traumatic injury, work-related musculoskeletal symptoms) to guide research in the occupational safety and health community.

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Organizational Composition

Of NIOSH’s more than 1,400 employees, many are research staff. Researchers at NIOSH work in multidisciplinary teams, representing a wide range of disciplines, such as epidemiology, industrial hygiene, occupational medicine, psychology, ergonomics, engineering, chemistry, and statistics. The institute is organized in nine research divisions:

  • Pittsburgh Research Laboratory: addresses the safety and health hazards of mining (e.g., coal) and disaster prevention (e.g., mine ventilation, explosives safety)
  • Spokane Research Laboratory: addresses mine safety and health, primarily in the metal and non-metal mining sector (e.g., detection/prevention of collapse of mine roofs)
  • Division of Applied Research and Technology: aimed at preventing occupational injury and illness; assesses intervention effectiveness; examines ergonomic and organization of work factors (e.g., psychosocial factors) in work-related illness and injury
  • Division of Surveillance, Hazard Evaluations and Field Studies: conducts systematic, ongoing research to examine patterns of work-related illnesses, exposures, and hazardous agents in the U.S. workforce; studies the causes of work-related diseases; provides technical help on occupational safety and health issues to other organizations
  • Education and Information Division: creates/ disseminates information; makes recommendations to prevent occupational injuries/diseases; develops risk assessments
  • Division of Respiratory Disease Studies: aims to identify, evaluate, and prevent occupational respiratory diseases (e.g., asthma); administers legislatively mandated medical services for coal miners; researches the quality of respiratory devices
  • Division of Safety Research: takes a public health approach to occupational injury prevention (including traumatic occupational injuries); incorporates surveillance, analytic epidemiology, safety engineering, and health communication
  • Health Effects Laboratory Division: conducts laboratory research (e.g., on causes, prevention, and control of biological health problems resulting from workplace exposure to hazardous substances); develops interventions; designs, tests, and implements communications to control and prevent workplace safety/health problems
  • National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory: aims to prevent and reduce occupational disease, injury, and death for workers who use personal protective technologies (e.g., respirators, chemical-resistant clothing)


The mission of NIOSH is to help assure safe and healthful conditions for workers by providing research, information, education, and training in occupational safety and health. To accomplish this mission, NIOSH has three primary objectives: (a) to conduct research in an effort to reduce work-related injuries and illnesses; (b) to encourage the safety and health of workplaces through interventions, offering recommendations and building capabilities in safe work practices and conditions; and (c) to enhance workplace safety and health around the world through international collaborations.


To further its mission, NIOSH engages in both intramural and extramural programs, which are aligned to increase research in the NORA priority areas. Intramural programs include the research conducted at the nine NIOSH research divisions described previously. Extramural programs provide opportunities for researchers at other institutions to conduct quality research, receive education and training, and develop worldwide collaborations in the area of occupational safety and health. As part of its extramural program, NIOSH sponsors 16 Education and Research Centers (ERCs) and 35 Training Project Grants to enhance the training of occupational safety and health professionals and researchers. Some of the ERCs offer competitive pilot grants for doctoral students and junior faculty who conduct research related to occupational health and safety. The ERCs also provide continuing education programs for practicing professionals.

The Agricultural Centers Program also was established by NIOSH and is a national resource for agricultural health and safety problems by means of education, research, prevention, and interventions. More than 370 collaborative programs were established across the country via regional NIOSH Agricultural Centers and other regional and national agricultural agencies.

In addition, NIOSH runs state programs to enhance worker safety and health. Activities include grants and cooperative agreements to build competencies in state worker safety, evaluating hazards in the workplace and recommending solutions when requested, funding occupational safety and health research at academic institutions and other organizations, and supporting occupational safety and health training programs.

Further, the NIOSH Web site offers information on occupational health, including NIOSH publications, access to databases, and information on specific topics related to occupational safety and health. Also, NIOSH communicates occupational safety and health information in Spanish.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)

Established in 1971, OSHA is a regulatory agency for worker safety and health protection in the U.S. Department of Labor. By providing leadership and encouragement to organizations, OSHA seeks to help them recognize and understand the value of safety and health at work. Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, OSHA is authorized to conduct workplace inspections and investigations to assess the extent to which employers comply with the standards issued by OSHA for safe and healthy workplaces. The national office is located in Washington, D.C., and 26 states also run their own OSHA state programs.

Employees and Divisions

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has more than 2,300 employees, including more than 1,100 inspectors, complaint discrimination investigators, physicians, standards writers, engineers, and educators, as well as other technical and support staff. The agency and its state affiliates have more than 200 offices in the United States and are organized in terms of 10 directorates. Aside from the three directorates that serve primarily administrative or support functions (e.g., public affairs, technical support), the directorates include the following:

  • Directorate of Construction: works with the construction industry on engineering issues to improve safety and health awareness and reduce fatalities, injuries, and illnesses
  • Directorate of Cooperative and State Programs: develops, recommends, and implements policies and procedures; coordinates programs that support OSHA’s cooperative efforts (e.g., compliance assistance, small business assistance)
  • Directorate of Enforcement Programs: establishes and maintains a comprehensive occupational safety and health compliance guidance and assistance program, as well as discrimination complaint investigation programs
  • Directorate of Evaluation and Analysis: provides advice and recommendations to the assistant secretary for occupational safety and health and OSHA program directors based on evaluations, analyses, and studies it conducts in support of OSHA activities
  • Directorate of Science, Technology, and Medicine: provides expertise on scientific, engineering, and medical issues pertaining to occupational safety and health; provides technical assistance and support to OSHA national and regional offices
  • Directorate of Standards and Guidance: develops workplace standards, regulations, and guidance that are feasible, addresses significant workplace risks, and considers the potential effects of standards on the economy, affected industries, and small businesses
  • Regional Administrators, Occupational Safety and Health Administration: plans, directs, and administers a comprehensive occupational safety and health program throughout the 10 U.S. regions and U.S. territories


The mission of OSHA is to assure the safety and health of America’s workers by setting and enforcing standards; providing training, outreach, and education; establishing partnerships; and encouraging continuous improvement in workplace safety and health. These strategies are authorized by the Occupational Safety and Health Act to help organizations reduce work-related illnesses, injuries, and deaths.


The primary function of OSHA is to establish standards for protection from work-related safety and health hazards, enforce those standards, and provide consultations and technical support to employers and employees. Nearly every type of worker is included within OSHA’s jurisdiction, with a few exceptions (e.g., miners, transportation workers, many public employees, and the self-employed).

The agency promotes workplace safety and health through a variety of activities in pursuit of its mission (i.e., enforcement, outreach/education, and partnerships). In terms of enforcement, OSHA develops mandatory job safety and health standards and enforces them through worksite inspections, by providing assistance to employers, and by imposing citations and/or penalties. More than 39,000 federal inspections were conducted in fiscal year 2004, with more than half conducted in the construction industry. The penalty for violating an OSHA standard ranges from $0 to $70,000, depending on the likelihood that the violation could result in serious harm to employees. In addition to conducting inspections, OSHA establishes rights and responsibilities for employers and employees to reach better safety and health conditions. Further, the agency maintains a system to report and maintain records to monitor job-related injuries and illnesses.

In terms of outreach, education, and compliance assistance, OSHA establishes training programs to increase the competence of occupational safety and health professionals and to educate employers to reduce accidents and injuries. Also, OSHA supports the development of new methods of reducing workplace hazards and encourages organizations to reduce hazardous conditions (e.g., by applying new safety and health management systems or improving existing programs). Other sources of education include OSHA’s Web site (, which offers publications and interactive e-tools to help organizations address specific hazards and prevent injuries, a hotline for workplace safety and health information and assistance, and Spanish-language services (e.g., Web page, publications).

In addition, OSHA has cooperative programs, partnerships, and alliances to promote the safety and health of workplaces. For instance, OSHA partners with states that operate their own occupational safety and health programs, and it provides a consultation service regarding workplace safety and health issues.


  1. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
  2. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. (2003). All about OSHA: Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor. Retrieved January 25, 2016, from
  3. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

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