Workers’ Rights to Safety and Health in the Workplace

Throughout the United States, employees have continually pushed for reform regarding workplace safety laws from lawmakers in Washington. Some of the current employment laws regarding worker safety and health protections have greatly reduced injury, illness, and deaths of workers, but additional protections are needed. Even without future reforms, workers today possess numerous legal protections in the workplace to ensure their safety and continued health. Some of these protections are discussed at length below.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act

The premier piece of legislation protecting worker safety in the workplace is the Occupational Safety and Health Act, otherwise known as OSHA. The Department of Labor is charged with enforcing OSHA laws, and in turn, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is charged with researching further means of protecting worker safety. At its most basic level, OSHA forces employers to offer employees a safe workplace, void of dangers, hazards, and uninformed risks. In addition to the federal OSHA laws, about half of states possess their own state-level OSHA mandates as well.

Employer Responsibilities under OSHA

Per OSHA, employers are tasked with many responsibilities, which are intended to protect workers in the workplace and inform them of their rights to work in a hazard free environment. Some of the more notable employer responsibilities under OSHA include:

  • Using posters, codes, and other warning signs to inform employees of potential hazards
  • Prominently post the "OSHA Poster", which details workers' rights under OSHA
  • Provide training and education for following OSHA procedures, as well as having a communication chain to pass along new procedures and policies
  • Adhere to all applicable OSHA standards
  • Maintain a comprehensive list of all workplace injuries, and report these fatal injuries within eight hours to their local OSHA office
  • Promote and provide a work environment free of hazards, which includes offering employees the necessary tools and maintenance equipment for the safe operation of job tools
  • Not discriminating against workers exercising their legal rights under OSHA

Employees Covered OSHA Laws

OSHA laws cover most private commercial entities involved in interstate commerce, which includes any company that uses a computer or phone line to operate their business. Independent contractors, however, are generally not considered covered by the law. Even most public employees at the local, state, and federal level are protected by OSHA laws of their local or state government.

Stipulations of OSHA Laws

Essentially, OSHA laws stipulate that employers must provide employees a safe work environment, which is void of all hazards that can be reasonably removed. The Act attempts to prevent injuries in workplaces. Additionally, OSHA laws cover considerable numbers of issues related to occupational disease and other workplace related illnesses. Proving OSHA violations by your employer must contain the following elements in a complaint:

  • Employers clearly failed to remove known hazards from working environment
  • The known hazard possessed potential to cause serious physical injury, illness, or death
  • The hazard was the direct cause of damages incurred by affected employees

In addition to making sure your workplace is safe, OSHA laws set industry-specific safety standards that employers must adhere to at all times. These laws include general practices in the industry, informing workers of potential hazards and risks, and posting worker rights under OSHA laws at all jobsites. Additionally, most employers must maintain accurate and comprehensive accident reporting records in the event of employee illness or injuries related to their occupation.

Enforcing Your Rights under OSHA Laws

If you believe your workplace is currently unsafe or presents a specific hazard to employees, follow these actions to ensure the removal of any risk at your jobsite:

  • Consult with your supervisor regarding the potential hazard
  • File a complaint with your company's designated OSHA compliance officer

If none of these measures effectively addresses an existing workplace hazard, an employee or group of employees can take the following actions:

  • File an OSHA violation complaint directly to the Department of Labor, which most likely will result in a surprise on-site inspection by OSHA regulators
  • Protect your identity and other personal involvement in a complaint by filing complaints from home and checking the anonymity requested box on the complaint form

Following a complaint, OSHA officers will actively pursue investigating complaints, which will eventually resolve your workplace safety concerns in one of two ways. First, an on-site inspection may occur, or second, an officer may consult with employers via offsite investigation. If your employer is not compliant with an OSHA request, OSHA officials may file court injunctions in immediately pressing cases or issue citations to employers. Unanswered complaints about employers will face an escalating process involving OSHA officials in resolving the workplace hazard issue. In some cases, workers have the right to vacate immediately a work site under certain conditions of extreme danger per OSHA laws.

Workers filing complaints to their employers or OSHA offices are protected from retaliation under OSHA laws. There are specific time statutes for workers filing complaints due to illegal retaliation, which is generally thirty (30) days. Likewise, state and local areas posses their own OSHA enforcement agencies, which may prove more beneficial to workers not covered by existing federal OSHA laws.

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