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OSHA Law Blog

Concussions in Professional Athletes: Is There a Role for OSHA?

Over the past three months, the media has been fixated on concussions in professional football players. Some of the National Football League’s top players – Ben Roethlisberger, Kurt Warner, Clinton Portis – have recently been sidelined for concussions sustained on the playing field. After Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers was held out for an important game against division rival Baltimore because he was experiencing exercise-induced headaches, Hines Ward, the team’s all-time leading receiver, suggested to the media that Roethlisberger should have played in the game, even if that meant lying to the team’s medical staff in order to obtain clearance.

As the media has focused on the issue of concussions in professional athletes, an interesting question has been raised: where is OSHA in all this? While some professional athletes may be “independent contractors” and not covered by the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act), many most assuredly are “employees” and their employers must take steps to protect them. The failure of employers to respond on their own to workplace injuries and illnesses was one of the key reasons that Congress passed the OSH Act in 1970.

In order for OSHA to regulate a hazardous condition in the workplace, it must first determine whether a “significant risk” of workplace injury or death exists from exposure to the hazardous condition. The risk of this injury or death is considered over a 45-year working lifetime under the OSH Act. It would be interesting for OSHA to examine – in all professional sports – what is the risk of developing a concussion or other serious head injury assuming a professional athlete were to be exposed to hazards over a 45-year period. The numbers could be eye-opening.

OSHA, of course, has been silent on the issue of concussions in professional sports. Perhaps the issue of injuries in professional athletes is too far outside OSHA’s comfort zone, believing its limited resources can be better used elsewhere. It is legitimate to question, however, the extent to which OSHA should be involved in this issue or whether Congress needs to create a new “Sports Safety and Health Administration” or “SSHA” to mandate athlete safety and health.

Click here for a Special Report analyzing concussions in athletes and steps professional sports franchises, colleges, universities, and public school systems across the country can take to address concussion management.