Your Health and Safety at Work FAQ

Frequently asked questions about health and safety in the workplace.

What rights do I have under the OSH Act?

If your workplace poses an imminent threat to your life, the OSH Act gives you the right to refuse to work. See Nolo's article Dealing With Workplace Health and Safety Issues for more information.

Even if your workplace does not pose imminent danger, however, the OSH Act gives you many important rights, including the right to:

  • get training from your employer on the health and safety standards your employer must follow
  • get training from your employer on any dangerous chemicals you are exposed to and ways to protect yourself from harm
  • get training from your employer on any other health and safety hazards (such as construction hazards or bloodborne pathogens) that might exist in your workplace
  • request information from your employer about OSH Act standards, worker injuries and illnesses, job hazards, and workers' rights
  • ask your employer to cure any hazards or OSH Act violations
  • file a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
  • request that OSHA inspect your workplace
  • find out the results of an OSHA inspection
  • file a complaint with OSHA if your employer retaliates against you for asserting your rights under the act, and
  • ask the federal government to research possible workplace hazards.

For more information on OSHA or to get contact information for your nearest OSHA office, visit the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration website, at www.osha.gov.

What steps should I take if I'm injured by a workplace hazard?

If you have been injured at work by a hazard that could harm someone else, take the following steps as quickly as possible after obtaining medical treatment.

  • If the hazard poses an imminent threat of death or serious injury, call OSHA's emergency telephone line at 800-321-OSHA (6742).
  • Immediately file a claim for workers' compensation benefits so that your medical bills will be paid and you will be compensated for your lost wages and injury. In some states, the amount you receive from a workers' comp claim will be larger if a violation of a state workplace safety law contributed to your injury. For more information, see Nolo's articles on workers' compensation benefits.
  • Tell your employer that a continuing hazard or dangerous condition exists. As with most workplace safety complaints, the odds of getting your employer to resolve the problem will be greater if other employees join in your complaint. For information on your rights when raising health and safety concerns with your employer, see Nolo's article Assert Your Safety Rights Without Fear of Retaliation.
  • If your employer does not eliminate the hazard promptly, file a complaint with OSHA and any state or local agency that you think may be able to help. For example, if your complaint is about hazardous waste disposal, you may be able to track down a local group that has been successful in investigating similar complaints in the past.

Does OSHA protect against the harmful effects of tobacco smoke in the workplace?

OSHA rules apply to tobacco smoke only in rare and extreme circumstances, such as when contaminants created by a manufacturing process combine with tobacco smoke to create a dangerous workplace air supply that fails OSHA standards. Workplace air quality standards and measurement techniques are so technical that, typically, only OSHA agents or consultants who specialize in environmental testing are able to determine when the air quality falls below allowable limits. However, many state and local governments have separate laws that prohibit or restrict smoking in the workplace.

For more information, see Nolo's article Smoking in the Workplace.

Further Resource

For a comprehensive guide to workplace laws, get Your Rights in the Workplace, by Barbara Repa (Nolo).

Is there anything I can do to keep my abusive ex away from my workplace?

Yes. You can get a restraining order, which requires your ex to stay a certain distance away from you at all times, and you can make sure that the places you frequent, such as your home, workplace, or school, are included in the order. In many states, your employer may be able to get its own restraining order to keep your ex off the premises. There are also some commonsense safety precautions you can take at work, such as making sure no one gives out information on your presence or whereabouts. For more information, see Nolo's article Workplace Violence: Understand and Avoid It.

Now that the health care reform bill has passed, does my employer have to offer health insurance?

Not right away. Although the health care reform law (called the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) will eventually require some employers to "pay or play" -- to offer health care coverage to employees or pay a penalty -- that requirement doesn't kick in until 2014. Even when it does go into effect, it will apply only to employers with at least 50 employees. Smaller employers aren't required to offer coverage, but those that do will receive incentives in the form of tax credits. For more information, see Nolo's article Health Care Reform: What Employers and Employees Need to Know. And that's assuming it goes into effect at all: The Supreme Court will be deciding several cases challenging the constitutionality of the health care reform law. (Check out our blog post, Supreme Court to Hear Challenges to Healthcare Reform, to find out more about these cases.)

What laws protect my right to a safe workplace?

Federal and state laws protect you from having to work in dangerous or hazardous conditions. The main federal law covering threats to workplace safety is the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (the "OSH Act" -- 29 U.S.C. § 651 and following). The OSH Act gives you a number of rights if you think that some aspect of your workplace or working conditions is unsafe. See Nolo's article Dealing With Workplace Health and Safety Issues for more information.

Most state laws track the federal law fairly closely. To find out about workplace safety laws in your state, contact your state labor department.

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