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In Honor of the NFL Season Getting Started…. OSHA and the NFL?

With this being the first real weekend of the NFL season, albeit the preseason, a trivia-like thought came to mind which made me think that the might be interesting to fellow sports fans. That is, do professional football players (or any professional athlete for that matter) fall under the jurisdiction of the Occupational Safety & Health Administration? The short answer is yes. But it does get far more complicated than just that simple answer. Which means that in actual practice, it’s more of a “it depends” answer.

First, the basic data. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the agency charged with the collection and analysis of workplace stafety and health data, the industry segment for Sports Teams and Clubs (NAICS 711211) in 2008 had an injury and illness rate of 13.4 per 100 full-time employees. The DART rate was 6.2 per 100 full-time employees. This is a high enough injury rate to put it on the list of Highest Incidence Rates of Total Nonfatal Occupational Injury & Illnesses Cases (link). {As a side observation, the 67,500 employees in the industry are not all athletes. Many are support staff, management, operations, etc}. By comparison, the overall 2008 private sector recordable injury/illness and DART rates were 3.9 and 2.0 per 100 full-time employees, respectively. Bottom line: the statistic reaffirm the obvious fact that the professional sports industry exposes athletes to the possibility of injuries, particularly football.

One might ask … why don’t we see OSHA in the NFL if the agency has jurisdiction?

Well, here’s where the “yes, but…” comes into play. Although the Agency has the perception on being hands-off when it comes to the NFL, we should remember that there have been fatal incidences over the years where OSHA did come in to inspect the cases. In Minnesota, the State OSHA Program conducted a fatality investigation when the football star Korey Stringer succumbed to complications stemming from heat stroke during practice. As employers should, they instituted changes to better protect players after his death demonstrated a serious health issue. For example, the league now requires a doctor to be present during practice sessions as well as placing greater focus and player awareness on the issue of heat stress risk.

Some may also argue that the crane accident in June 2008 (new Dallas stadium under construction) in which OSHA investigated to also be an example of the Agency’s oversight of the industry. It is true that OSHA investigated this crane accident, however, that was really more applicable to construction rather than the sport of football itself. Similarly, there was a fatal incident in Atlanta’s dome where a vendor was killed by a falling object. These captured OSHA’s attention.

So, does OSHA have jurisdiction over the NFL / teams / players? Yes. However, in practice, it has really only been limited to fatality investigations. In terms of normal game injuries, the Agency has decided to take more of a hands-off approach. Afterall, the players do wear ‘PPE’ (helmet, pads), undergo ‘medical surveillance’ (team doctors, fast medical treatment, frequent physicals), have ‘administrative controls’ (players are specialized for the position, on/off field accordingly), are trained (heat stress awareness), and are under ‘engineering controls’ (rules/penalties, limited season and number of games), and so on.

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