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OSHA Compliance For Animal Sanctuaries In The United States

Weathered sign that says "Danger: Hard Hat Area"Updated September 07, 2021

If your sanctuary is formally organized in the United States and has at least one paid employee, you must follow the regulations set forth under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (also known as OSHA). Twenty six states have their own safety and health rules that are similar to and are enforced alongside OSHA regulations. Thus in addition to complying with the OSHA requirements referenced below, it is also critical that you check in on your state’s requirements, as well as regulations that may have been propounded by your county or municipality.

In order to prevent serious injuries (and serious fines!), you must be aware of your federal responsibilities under OSHA, your state and local regulations, and workplace safety generally so that you observe all due diligence in keeping your sanctuary safe for your employees!

Special Note For COVID-19 Precautions

Sanctuaries should also take note that the United States Department of Labor has issued special guidance with respect to the COVID 19 epidemic.  Current guidance can be found here and should be checked regularly for updates.

Why Does OSHA Exist?

OSHA was created in order to help guarantee a safe workplace for employees across a broad spectrum of jobs. It gives a way for employees to speak out against unsafe environments, and provides a transparent framework for employers to identify and correct any unreasonable dangers in the workplace.

Would My Organization Be Exempt From OSHA?

Nonprofit organizations (which most sanctuaries likely fall under) are NOT exempt from OSHA regulations. There is an exemption to following OSHA regulations for “small farming operations” who have 10 or fewer employees a year, but a sanctuary would not likely fall under this exemption, regardless of potential visual similarities between farms and sanctuaries, since sanctuaries do not exist to generate profit.

What Are The Basic Compliance Requirements?

Depending on the unique environments and hazards at your sanctuary, there are simple and more complex things to consider in order to remain in OSHA compliance, but every organization has to abide by the following:

  • Employers must prominently display OSHA’s official poster in an area where employees can easily see it
  • Employers must communicate with employees about the hazards of their specific workplace
  • Employers must maintain an emergency action plan in case of fire (including providing and maintaining accessible exit routes) and duties if there is a medical emergency at the organization. If you have 10 or fewer employees, these emergency plans can be conveyed verbally, but if you have more than 10 employees, all of your emergency plans must be written and available for employee review
  • Employers must provide adequate bathroom facilities with hot and cold water, soap, and a hand dryer or clean towels
  • Employers must provide readily available first aid supplies and fire suppression devices where appropriate. Employees should be trained on the basics of these tools
  • Employers must keep a record of every non-consumer chemical product used at the workplace and provide employees with information about these products and their hazards
  • Employers must log any employee injuries that require more than first aid on OSHA Form 300 and keep these records for at least five years
  • If there is a serious injury, multiple injuries, or a human fatality at your organization, an employer must report this to OSHA within a well-defined short window of time
  • OSHA inspectors may enter, inspect, and investigate any workplace covered by OSHA regulations during working hours. Inspectors can visit unannounced (it can actually be illegal to announce an inspection in advance if it’s in response to a complaint). They will inform you the reason as to their visit, will be able to privately meet with employees, and must have access to your records if requested
  • Employees must be able to contact (or even whistleblow to) OSHA in order to address workplace concerns or talk to OSHA inspectors privately without any retaliation from their employer. If they are penalized for doing so, the employee is granted many legal protections and avenues for recourse.

What Safety Precautions Must An Employer Provide?

Due to the diverse set of occupations that OSHA governs, the rules for employers are rather broad.

  • An employer must maintain conditions or adopt practices reasonably necessary and appropriate to protect workers on the job. For an animal sanctuary, this could have broad applications from ensuring that loft ladders are safe and secure, to ensuring that there are unobstructed and obvious exit paths out of all structures in case of emergencies.
  • An employer must be familiar with and comply with standards applicable to their establishments. OSHA has standards for many different kinds of organizations and establishments, including for those that interact with animals (though nothing specifically outlined for the compassionate care of farmed animals). You should likely be aware of OSHA standards for agricultural environments as a starting point at your sanctuary. If you are unsure of what standards your specific organization may have to consider for safety, OSHA has a free handbook for small businesses that you can reference.
  • An employer must ensure that employees have access to and use protective equipment when necessary to protect their safety and health. For a sanctuary, this may mean providing things such as Tyvek suits and rubber gloves for handling ill residents in isolation or providing helmets and face protection if employees are engaged in construction activities. Please note that during the current pandemic, providing PPE for employees such as masks, as well as following social distancing is also something to consider carefully.

What Would OSHA Consider A Hazard At A Sanctuary?

If OSHA does not specifically list a specific scenario or situation as an unacceptable hazard in their guidelines, the general duty provision provides a framework of when administrators of the law would intervene to protect employees at a non-compliant organization. This framework includes four criteria that must be met:

  • There is a hazard
  • The hazard is recognized as hazardous (either the employer knew or should have known about it, it’s very obviously a hazard, or someone within your industry would recognize it as a hazard)
  • The hazard could or would likely cause serious harm or death
  • The hazard must be correctable (not all hazards are correctable according to OSHA)

Generally, OSHA hazards cover things such as:

  • Toxic substances, hazardous waste, and harmful physical agents
  • Electrical hazards
  • Fall hazards
  • Hazards associated with trenches and digging
  • Infectious disease
  • Fire and explosion dangers
  • Dangerous atmospheres
  • Machine hazards
  • Confined spaces

There are many aspects of an animal sanctuary’s operations that could be seen as hazardous, from zoonotic diseases of residents, to potential falls from lofts, to high risk resident medications that must be kept under lock and key. All of these potential hazards must be kept as safe as possible in order to avoid accidents or fines. OSHA also requires clear signage such as weight limits for loft spaces and exit signs in all structures that humans may enter. It’s the employer’s responsibility to ensure that employees are never put in too much risk, even in the reasonably risky environments that they may be expected to work in each day. Even injuries and illness that occur while employees are traveling for sanctuary business are covered under OSHA regulations!

OSHA does provide employers with guidance with respect to hazard identification assessment, available here, which can help sanctuaries proactively assess their sites and potentially identify and reduce risks of employee hazards in advance.

Are Volunteers Covered Under OSHA?

Typically, the majority of OSHA regulations only apply to employees, however, there are specific high-risk activities that may be covered under OSHA that applies to both employees and volunteers. For instance, you should not allow volunteers to access ladders or other areas that could potentially lead to a fall. In addition, certain states have their own safety and health rules which are specifically extended to protect volunteers at organizations. You should always be extremely cautious about volunteer training, the situations you ask of them, and be aware of the regional laws that govern your organization. Not only is this the right thing to do for those who wish to help serve your residents, but it can also protect your sanctuary in the event of an unexpected accident. Remember as well that even if in a given situation, OSHA may not cover a particular volunteer, your sanctuary may still be subject to common law tort liability. In addition to proactively monitoring your sanctuary for potential risks and mitigating them, it is also a good idea to implement protective practices such as utilizing accident waivers for volunteers.

OSHA Compliance And Insurance Companies

Your sanctuary’s insurance provider very likely has its own safety recommendations that they would like you to follow in tandem with OSHA’s standards. They will likely be more strict with you than OSHA, given that they have a vested financial interest in keeping accidents to a minimum at your sanctuary. Many insurance companies provide OSHA information, safety seminars, and supplemental recommendations either freely or at reduced cost to help ensure that everyone is as safe as possible.

If an insurance adjuster comes to your property and makes safety suggestions to your organization, it is highly advisable to take their recommendations quite seriously. Ideally, you should implement their suggestions and demonstrate to them that you have done so. A happy insurer is one who may be more willing to work with you on premiums; an unhappy insurer may raise your rates or drop your coverage entirely, which could be disastrous for your organization.

When In Doubt, Ask!

If you are unsure of where your responsibilities lie as it pertains to OSHA regulations for your employees, you can reach out to OSHA for clarification, training, and other educational opportunities. OSHA actively provides free assistance to help identify and remedy unreasonable hazards and will not penalize your organization if things are found to be out of compliance, as long as you make corrections within a reasonable timeframe. Failing to provide a reasonably safe working environment for your employees, volunteers, and visitors is unacceptable, and the fines for noncompliance can be staggeringly high.

With all the other responsibilities a sanctuary must tackle each day, it may seem overwhelming to add OSHA to the mix, but compliance won’t just keep the government happy; it will also make your organization safer and can help provide extra peace of mind for your employees as they give your residents the best care possible!

Putting It Into Action

Now that you’ve learned about OSHA compliance at your sanctuary, check out The Open Sanctuary Project’s free downloadable checklist to help make your sanctuary a safer place for everyone!

What Does 'Unacceptable' Mean?

At The Open Sanctuary Project, unacceptable means that we cannot condone (or condone through omission) a certain practice, standard, or policy. See a more detailed explanation here.


A Nonprofit’s Guide To OSHA | Pro Bono Partnership

What Is OSHA? What Employers Need To Know | The Balance Small Business

OSHA Safety | Missionbox

Small Farming Operations And Exemption From OSHA | US Department Of Labor

OSHA Regulations And Animal Facilities | Fox Rothschild LLP

Updated on September 7, 2021

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