State and Local Health and Safety Laws
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Many states and municipalities have laws that mandate a certain level of safety in the workplace. These laws vary greatly in what they require, how they are enforced, and even which employers they cover.
Early on, California began enforcing the most powerful of these laws: It requires every employer in the state to have a written plan to prevent workplace injuries. A number of states have followed the lead, putting teeth and nails into the laws that protect workplace safety. For example, Texas maintains a 24-hour hotline for telephone reports of violations—and prohibits employers from discriminating against workers who use it.
Most states now have their own OSHA laws, and most offer protections for workers that are similar to those provided in the federal law. For example, employers in some low-hazard industries, such as retailers and insurance companies with fewer than ten employees, are exempt from some posting and reporting requirements. Most state laws cover all small employers, regardless of the type of business.
A number of states that do not now have OSHA laws in place are presently considering passing them—and many of the states that already have such laws are considering wholesale amendments changing their coverage and content. Check your state’s particulars with a local OSHA office—or call the state department of labor to check whether your state has enacted or amended an OSHA law recently.
A number of state laws specifically forbid employers from firing employees who assert their rights under workplace health and safety rules. Some state laws, like OSHA, give workers the right to refuse to work under certain conditions, although the workers may need to report the condition first. And some states protect workers from retaliation not only for exercising their rights under OSHA, but also for using state “right to know” laws—statutes that require employers to give workers information about hazardous substances on the job.
Still another group of state laws extends beyond the workplace to protect employees who report violations of laws and rules that create specific dangers to public health and safety. These laws, commonly referred to as whistleblower statutes, generally protect good eggs: people who are attempting to uphold a public policy of the state. For example, typical whistleblower statutes prohibit employees from being fired for reporting toxic dumping or fraudulent use of government funds.
Many state and local health and building codes offer guidance in how to keep your workplace safe. While not intended specifically to ensure workplace safety, these laws often include programs designed to ensure good sanitation and public safety in general.
For example, the health department of the city in which you work probably has the power to order an employer to improve restroom facilities that are leaking and causing unsanitary workplace conditions. And your local building inspector typically can order an employer to straighten out faulty electrical wiring that presents a shock or fire hazard to people working near that wiring.
You can find state and local health and building codes at your city hall or county courthouse.