Employee Rights Under OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Act)

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The main federal law covering threats to workplace safety is the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). OSHA created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (also called OSHA) to enforce workplace safety. And it created the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to research ways to increase workplace safety. 

OSHA broadly requires employers to provide a safe workplace for employees—one that is free of dangers that could physically harm those who work there. The law implements this directive by requiring employers to inform employees about potential hazards, to train them in how to deal with hazards, and to keep records of workplace injuries.

Sometimes, workplace dangers are caught and corrected during unannounced inspections by OSHA. But the vast majority of OSHA’s actions against workplace hazards are initiated by complaints from employees or labor unions representing them.

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CAUTION

States have OSHA laws, too. About half the states now have their own OSHA laws. The legal requirements for workplace health and safety in the state laws are generally similar to the federal law. In some cases, the state laws are more strict. (See “State and Local Health and Safety Laws,” below.)

Why Employees Need OSHA

According to OSHA, each year an estimated:

  • 5,200 Americans die from workplace injuries in the private sector
  • 50,000 employees die from work-related illnesses
  • 4.3 million people suffer nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses, and
  • $156 billion is spent on occupational injuries and illnesses.

Still, OSHA recently reported that the rate of workplace injuries has declined fairly steadily since 1992, which it attributed to improvements in workplace safety and the decline in the number of manufacturing jobs.

But an alarming 2009 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found those statistics woefully inaccurate—and charged that OSHA data failed to include as many as two-thirds of all workplace injuries and illnesses. In addition to criticizing OSHA’s sole reliance on employers as the source of reported injuries, the report surveyed occupational health practitioners who said that they had been squeezed to skew the statistics. Specifically:

  • 53% reported experiencing pressure from company officials to play down injuries or illnesses
  • 47% reported experiencing this pressure from workers
  • 67% reported observing worker fear of disciplinary action for reporting an injury or illness, and
  • 46% said this fear had some impact on the accuracy of employers’ injury and illness records.

The report highlighted a number of reasons both employees and employers may be tempted to fudge reports of injuries and fatalities. For example, workers may not report a work-related injury or illness because they fear being fired or disciplined, or fear jeopardizing rewards based on having low injury and illness rates. Some related their experiences that their employers required drug testing after incidents resulting in reported injuries or illnesses, regardless of any evidence of drug use. In addition, employers may not record injuries or illnesses because they are afraid of increasing workers’ compensation costs, jeopardizing their chances of winning contract bids for new work, or triggering a full-scale OSHA investigation.

In response to its findings, the GAO made four recommendations:

  • Require inspectors to interview workers during records audits and substitute other workers when those initially selected are unavailable.
  • Decrease the time between the date injuries and illnesses are recorded by employers and the date they are audited.
  • Update the list of high-hazard industries used to select worksites for records audits.
  • Increase education and training to help employers better understand the recordkeeping requirements.

OSHA officials vowed the agency will move swiftly to implement the recommendations.

Who Is Covered

Unlike many other laws, which cover only companies with a minimum number of employees, OSHA covers nearly all private employers engaged in interstate commerce. That includes nearly every employer that uses the U.S. Postal Service to send mail to other states or makes telephone calls to other states, or uses the Internet to conduct business. Independent contractors are not specifically covered by the law.

OSHA does not apply to state and local governments. However, these employees have some protection if their state or local government has a safety plan. As an incentive, OSHA will fund half the cost of operating such a plan. Farms owned and operated by a family are the only significant private employers exempted from OSHA coverage.

OSHA Requirements

The Occupational Safety and Health Act requires all private employers to maintain a workplace that is as safe and healthy for employees as is reasonably possible. Under OSHA, all employers are charged with this general safety duty. In addition, the law sets specific workplace safety standards for four major categories of work: general industry, maritime, construction, and agriculture.

Safety regulations are usually concerned with preventing a one-time injury—such as falling from an unsafe ladder or tripping on an irregular walkway.

The Act’s health concerns are in preventing employee illnesses related to potential health dangers in the workplace—exposure to toxic fumes or asbestos, for example—and cumulative trauma such as carpal tunnel syndrome. 

The law quite simply, but frustratingly, requires employers to protect workers from “recognized hazards.” It does not specify or limit the types of dangers covered, so hazards ranging from things that cause simple cuts and bruises, to the unhealthy effects of long-term exposure to some types of radiation, are all arguably covered.

But proving the law was violated is not easy. To prove an OSHA violation, you must produce evidence of both of the following:

  • Your employer failed to keep the workplace free of a hazard.
  • The particular hazard was recognized as being likely to cause death or serious physical injury.

Under OSHA, the definition of a workplace is not limited to the inside of an office or factory. The Act requires that work conditions be safe no matter where the work is performed, even if the workplace is an open field or a moving vehicle.

In addition to the general duty to maintain a safe workplace, employers are required to meet OSHA’s safety standards for their specific industries. Depending on the types of hazards and workplaces involved, the employer’s responsibility for creating and maintaining a healthy and safe workplace can include such diverse things as informing workers about—and labeling—potentially hazardous substances, upgrading or removing machinery that poses a danger, providing employees with special breathing apparatus to keep dust created by a manufacturing process from entering workers’ lungs, improving lighting above work areas, providing emergency exits and fire protection systems, vaccinating against diseases that can be contracted at work, or even tracking the effects of workplace conditions on employees’ health through periodic medical examinations.

Finally, OSHA requires employers to display a poster explaining workers’ rights to a safe workplace in a conspicuous spot. If the workplace is outdoors, the poster must be displayed where employees are most likely to see it—such as in a trailer at a construction site where workers use a time clock to punch in and out. An employer’s failure to display such posters is itself a violation of OSHA rules.

Injury and Illness Reports

Within eight hours of any workplace accident that results in the death of a worker or requires hospitalization of four or more workers, employers must report complete details to OSHA, including names of injured workers, time and place of the accident, nature of the injuries, and any type of machinery involved in the accident. All employees and former employees must be given access to this report upon request.

Companies employing ten or more people must also keep records of workers’ work-related injuries and illnesses that have caused death or days off work and post a report on those injuries and illnesses.

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