A safe workplace is good for both employers and employees, but there are many potential health and safety hazards. In order to protect workers, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, better known as OSHA, sets out rules and regulations The federal OSHA defers to state OSHA agencies where those agencies are put in place. Workplace hazards and dangerous conditions can be reported to OSHA and may trigger an inspection.
Occupational Safety and Health Act
Congress enacted the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970. It is a federal law that addresses workplace conditions and applies throughout the nation. The Act established the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which determines workplace health and safety standards and takes steps to enforce them, assigning fines and other penalties to employers that violate its rules, standards and guidelines. The mission of OSHA is to ensure that employees are protected from hazards that might compromise their safety and health.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act applies to almost all private sector employers and their workers, as well as to some public sector employees. In some states, OSHA-approved state agencies help set and enforce job safety standards. But in order to qualify, these state OSHA agencies must set standards that are at least as stringent as the federal OSHA guidelines.
Specific Regulations and General Duty
The federal OSHA determines and establishes industry-wide guidelines for a safe workplace. This makes sense since coal mines are likely to have different hazards and safety concerns than a retail store or an office building. Employers and employees should consult the guidelines for the type of workplace they have. These guidelines are intended to protect employees, but they also aid employers in reducing injuries that can result in workers' compensation claims.
Although the OSHA Act gave OSHA the responsibility of setting industry-specific guidelines for workplace safety, which employers must follow, it also set out a general duty clause. This applies to all employers in all industries. It requires employers to furnish to each of their employees work and a workplace that are "free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm."
Office Safety Guidelines
To illustrate how OSHA works, it helps to look at office safety guidelines. While OSHA regulations for more complex workplaces with more dangerous conditions are stricter, such as rules for industrial enterprises, construction work, mines, shipyards and marine terminals, OSHA regulations also apply to office work environments. These include standards for office ventilation and air quality, ergonomic workstations, lighting, fire prevention and temperature regulation.
In current times, with the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic in mind, OSHA effectively shut down offices around the country until it established strict standards to prevent employees from spreading or contracting the virus at the office. These include such additional precautions as limiting the number of employees per office, requiring improved ventilation, mandating mask wearing and providing regular testing.
OSHA Extends to Home Offices
Many people aren't aware that OSHA workplace standards for office work are not limited to the office. If an employer allows, encourages or requires employees to work full time or part time from a home office, that home-based worksite must also be safe from hazards. To protect itself, the employer should send out people to check on the employee's working conditions at home and to assist with lighting, tripping hazards, fire safety and other matters that could impact the worker's health and safety.
Importance of Ergonomics
Ergonomics is important in office job settings, whether in the office itself or in a home office. OSHA offers specific guidelines for setting up work areas to prevent muscle strain and musculoskeletal disorders that are commonly associated with office environments. These include using ergonomically correct seating and positioning of computer keyboards as well as requiring workers who perform their jobs in a seated position to take regular work breaks to get up and move around.
Employee Rights Under OSHA
In addition to industry-specific rights, all workers generally have certain overarching rights, which include the right to speak up about hazards without fear of retaliation. They also have the right to:
- Receive workplace safety and health training in a language they understand.
- Work only on machines that are safe.
- Receive safety equipment when required, like personal protective equipment, a harness or gloves.
- Have protection from toxic chemicals.
- Request an OSHA safety inspection and speak personally to the inspector.
- Report workplace injuries or illness.
- Obtain and review records of work-related injuries and illnesses.
- Review results of tests taken to find workplace hazards.
Note that these measures must generally be provided by the employer, not paid for by the employee. For example, under OSHA guidelines, employers must generally bear the cost of all personal protective equipment needed by the employees to comply with OSHA standards. This includes protections like face masks, gloves, safety glasses, hard hats, goggles, face shields, welding helmets, chemical protective equipment and fall protection equipment.
Recordkeeping for Workplace Injuries
OSHA requires workplaces with more than 10 employees keep an updated record of serious work-related injuries and illnesses suffered by their workers. Minor injuries requiring only first aid do not need to be recorded.
However, any type of work-related injury or illness that requires medical attention beyond first aid must be recorded and reported to OSHA. This includes any time that an employee loses consciousness, is unable to come to work or is required to transfer to another job because of the injury or illness. The recorded data helps OSHA evaluate the safety of a workplace, understand industry hazards and implement worker protections.
About OSHA Enforcement
No matter how comprehensive OSHA workplace safety rules appear to be, they cannot protect workers adequately unless they are enforced. OSHA is charged with enforcing its regulations and safety standards by conducting inspections of workplaces and work sites. These inspections can be random, but they can also be in response to a reported safety violation. The names of employees and workers who report problems are usually kept confidential, but OSHA also precludes any retaliatory action against employees by employers.
Employers found to have workplaces in violation of OSHA safety guidelines face penalties and fines. The amount of the sanctions rise every year and are different for different types of problems. In 2021, violations can bring monetary penalties ranging from $975 to $13,653 per offense. If OSHA deems employer conduct to be willful or repeated, the fines in 2021 can go as high as $136,532 per violation.
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an MA and an MFA in English/writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.