Seyfarth Synopsis: OSHA is beginning to review work related stress as a workplace hazard falling under its jurisdiction.

OSHA, citing a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention July 2018 publication on Mental Health in the Workplace, has released a Safety and Health Topics bulletin addressing workplace stress and mental health hazards. According to OSHA, these workplace hazards have a range of potential consequences, including related to:

  • Job performance
  • Productivity
  • Work engagement and communication
  • Physical capability and daily functioning

OSHA concludes that “[s]tress can be harmful to our health and increase mental health challenges. Mental health challenges can include clinical mental illness and substance use disorders as well as other emotions like stress, grief, feeling sad and anxious, where these feelings are temporary and not part of a diagnosable condition. While there are many things in life that induce stress, work can be one of those factors. However, workplaces can also be a key place for resources, solutions, and activities designed to improve our mental health and well-being.”

OSHA’s concern for the mental health of the American workforce is generally supported by the regulated community. But OSHA has no regulations that address workplace stress and generally does not regulate mental health hazards, even to the extent they could be work-related. For purposes of OSHA record-keeping, mental illnesses generally do not need to be recorded on the OSHA Form 300 log, absent an opinion on work-relatedness from a physician or other licensed health care practitioner.

Workplace stress, to the extent OSHA could regulate it, would be enforced under the OSH Act’s General Duty Clause. To prove a citation relating to workplace stress, OSHA would need to show a recognized hazard of workplace stress specific to the worksite, that the employer was aware of the recognized hazard (or should have been), that the employer had a “feasible or useful” means of addressing the hazard, and that the efforts the employer undertook to address the hazard were insufficient.

OSHA currently has no procedures in place for a workplace stress inspection and has no standards in place indicating what would be considered a violation of the general duty clause and what types of abatement would be feasible or useful. Accordingly, OSHA may not yet be equipped to inspect for hazardous levels of workplace stress or craft a General Duty Clause citation. Therefore, we anticipate the probability of enforcement to be remote in the short term absent an unusual event, such as stress induced workplace violence. However, workplace stress is clearly on OSHA’s radar screen and we can anticipate further activity as OSHA comes up to speed on the issue.