It is widely known that in any workplace in the United States, federal guidelines are in place to protect the health and safety of employees. Where do these guidelines come from? How are they enforced? And has this always been the case?
Laying the Groundwork
The idea that an employee could expect reasonable protection of their health and safety is relatively new in this country. While the first occupational safety laws were enacted in Massachusetts in 1877 requiring guarding of belts, shafts, and gear on elevators and adequate exits in factories, it was not until the Department of Labor was formed in 1913 that the idea of occupational safety became a federal concern. In 1934, Francis Perkins, the first female Cabinet member in the country, created the Bureau of Labor Standards to improve the administration of workplace safety legislation. However, this legislation was still mostly enacted and enforced on a state level leaving workers in many states without protective rights afforded them by federal law.
During the height of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s legislators began discussing the need for federal protections for health and safety in the workplace. In 1970, as Congress was in the process of creating the OSH Act, there were nearly 14,000 occupational deaths, 2.5 million job-related disabilities and more than 300,000 new job-related illnesses each year. Vigorously opposed by businesses and spurred on by labor unions, the Occupational Safety and Health Act became law in April of 1971, giving the federal government the ability to create and enforce safety laws in businesses across the country. That same month, the director of the Bureau of Labor Standards became the first Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health and OSHA as a government agency was born.
Who OSHA Protects
Short for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA oversees the creation and administration of federal safety and health laws for most private sector businesses across the country. While Federal OSHA does not cover workers in state and local government agencies, there are OSH Act protections if they are working through an OSHA-approved state program. Fortunately, these state programs must be at least as effective as OSHA at providing protections for workers. The states that have OSHA-approved safety programs are:
There are very few groups that fall outside of the reach of OSHA in this country. Among these are those who are self-employed, immediate family members of farmers and those whose health and safety standards fall under another government agency such as the military or the Department of Energy.
You are entitled to a safe workplace free from known dangers to your health and safety. Likewise, you are protected under federal law to speak up about potential dangers without fear of retaliation. OSHA protects your right to:
- Work on machines that are in good repair and are safe for use.
- Be provided with safety gear required to do your job, such as a harness, gloves, etc.
- Have protection from toxic chemicals.
- Receive job training in a language that you understand.
- Speak to an OSHA inspector or request an OSHA inspection in your workplace.
- Receive copies of your medical records or report an illness or injury that happens in the workplace.
- Review workplace injury and illness logs.
- See records relating to workplace illnesses and injuries.
- Request copies of tests for harmful chemicals or other hazards.
- File a complaint if you have been the victim of retaliation by an employer after requesting an inspection or exercising your rights under the OSH Act.
- File a complaint if you have been punished for being a “whistleblower.”
Requirements of employers under OSHA standards are extensive and often industry specific. Laws governing hearing protection may not apply to an office where ergonomic desks may not be needed in a manufacturing setting. However, there are general requirements that are required of all employers. Among them are:
- Displaying the official OSHA Job Safety and Health – It’s the Law poster that details the rights a person has under the OSH Act.
- Informing workers about chemical hazards via training, alarms, color-coded systems, etc.
- Giving safety training in a language and using vocabulary that every worker can understand.
- Keeping records of illnesses and injuries that happen at or are related to work.
- Performing safety tests in the workplace.
- Providing safety equipment to workers at no cost to them.
- Performing medical tests and hearing screenings when required by OSHA standards.
- Posting any citations where workers can see them.
When OSHA regulations are violated
From a business standpoint, it is in a company’s best interest to comply with OSHA regulations and standards. Not only does compliance help employees to feel safe in their jobs, but workers are also able to have fewer hours of missed work and downtime due to injury or illness. Meeting or exceeding OSHA regulations also indemnifies employers from unnecessary lawsuits that could threaten the solvency of the company. However, there are instances when an employer does not feel the need to comply with federal health and safety standards. They may not train employees on the standards of safety in the organization or require them to purchase their safety equipment to improve their bottom line. They may refuse to acknowledge obvious hazards, fail to report workplace injuries or deaths or even punish those who request inspections by OSHA representatives.
Should an employer be found to be willfully or repeatedly violating the law, OSHA can enforce a maximum penalty of up to $124,709 per violation. Should they fail to correct an issue beyond the OSHA-imposed due date, they can be charged a fine of $12,471 per day. If an employer commits a serious or other-than-serious infraction or simply fails to meet OSHA posting requirements, they can be charged $12,471 per violation.
What to do if you see an OSH Act violation
Employees who wish to receive information or advice on a workplace issue or who wish to file a confidential complaint can contact their nearest OSHA office, visit www.osha.gov, or call OSHA directly. Reporting an emergency, fatality, hospitalization or loss of limb, sight or hearing can be done directly at 1-800-321-OSHA. For more information on your right to a safe, healthy workplace, contact us for a consultation.