Workplace safety isn't just a nice idea; it's a legal requirement. The Occupational Safety and Health Act requires that employers take safety precautions to prevent on-the-job injuries and accidents. It applies to every employer except the self-employed, family farms and some government workers. OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Agency, oversees OSH Act enforcement.
Employers' OSH Act Obligations
OSHA requires that businesses provide their employees with a safe workplace, free from known, serious health hazards. The agency offers employers broad guidelines on their duties under OSHA:
- Work conditions must meet OSHA's safety standards.
- Employees should have the tools and equipment necessary to do their job safely. The company must establish safe operating procedures and explain them so that employees know what to do.
- Employers must post labels, posters or signs warning workers about potential dangers. They must also put up OSHA posters informing employees of their rights and responsibilities.
- Companies that handle hazardous chemicals must have a training program for handling them safely.
- All training and safety tips must be in a language, and vocabulary, workers can understand.
- Employers, with a few exceptions, must keep records of work-related illnesses and injuries. OSHA must be notified of fatalities, hospitalizations, amputations and losses of an eye within eight hours of the incident.
- Employers can't discriminate against employees who report OSHA violations.
- If there's a violation, employers have to fix it by the deadline OSHA gives them.
Even though OSHA places the heaviest burden on employers, workers have responsibilities, too. If employers cover up work-related injury or illness cases, it's the employee's responsibility to notify OSHA. Employees have to assess workplace safety for themselves and decide whether it's necessary to notify OSHA about a lack of safety precautions. Beyond that, if employees don't follow the safety rules, the rules are useless.
Spreading the Safety Message
Preventing accidents and injuries requires more than occasional safety tips. Maintaining a safe workplace requires education and training. The riskier the job, the more critical that training becomes. Employees designing a website can suffer injuries, but they don't face the same danger as someone working with raw sewage. A good training program gives workers the knowledge and skills to do their jobs safely and to spot and control hazards. If the work involves unique hazards, the workers need specialized training to deal with them.
A good training program has several components. One is that managers and workers all need to understand the program. When they know how it works, they can participate in implementing it and improving it. They should know the goals of the program, who to contact with questions, how to report hazards and what to do in an emergency. Employees have to know they have a right to report hazards.
The company must also train employees and supervisors on their roles in dealing with hazards and safety programs under the act, and responding to or investigating accidents, illness or injuries. If the company uses a computerized system for reporting problems, employees need enough computer literacy and computer access to use the system. It's also important to train workers in identifying and controlling hazards, both in their specific job and more general work-related risks.
The hierarchy of controls is part of many training programs. It ranks different safety precautions according to their effectiveness:
- Elimination. Take the hazard out of the workplace.
- Substitution. Replace the hazard.
- Engineering Controls. Keep danger away from workers.
- Administrative Controls. Reduce risk by changing how the work is performed.
- Personal Protective Equipment. The workers are exposed to the threat but wear something to protect them.
If, say, a manufacturing process involves toxic chemicals, removing them or replacing them with something less dangerous would be the most effective safety step. Issuing workers personal protective equipment such as ventilators and protective gloves is much cheaper, but it's also less effective. That's partly because using safety equipment properly requires extra training and greater care by employees.
Workplace Precautions Examples
Falls are a risk for everyone, whether they carry paper around an office or rivet girders 15 stories up. Workplace safety requires thinking about falls and how to prevent them.
In construction, falls are a major cause of death. When employers plan construction projects, they need to think about how the job can be performed safely. What methods will workers use? What are the tasks involved? What safety equipment do they need? The cost of safety equipment and tools should be incorporated into the budget. For example, a roofing company should consider all the potential dangers such as skylights, edges and any holes in the roof. The company should then select fall-protection equipment that will minimize the danger. If, say, the employer provides roofers with a harness, the harness has to fit properly, and should be inspected regularly. Every roofer should be trained to use the harness.
Even employees who keep both feet on the ground are at risk for tripping and falling. In the restaurant industry, where wait staff and kitchen crews are constantly crisscrossing the floors, falling is a serious hazard. OSHA has multiple examples of what employers can do to minimize the risk:
- Provide adequate lighting.
- Repair uneven floor surfaces. Stretch out carpets that bulge or clump up, for instance.
- Keep floors dry.
- Set up warning signs for wet floors.
- Use non-slip mats or no-skid waxes in wet, slippery areas.
- Purchase non-slip footwear for employees or require them to do so.
- Make aisles and corridors wide enough to allow for easy movement.
- Don't run power cords across walkways.
Workplace Safety Tips
The OSH Act has been in place since 1970, though it's seen many changes since then. That gives employers, OSHA and safety training companies plenty of experience on what principles work when spreading your safety message:
- Involve employees in planning. If workers take ownership of safety initiatives, they're more likely to take job safety seriously.
- Provide clear instructions. Don't just assume. Before employees start a new task or use new equipment, confirm that they know what they're supposed to do and how to keep themselves safe.
- Prioritize. It's important to have plans for disasters such as fire or earthquake. It's more important to focus on falls or electrical accidents, which happen more often and cause more total injuries each year.
- Keep the work area clean. Get rid of clutter, remove boxes from stairwells and clean up spills. Encourage employees to do the same if they spot a problem.
- Give your employees the green light to speak up. If they have safety concerns or new safety tips, let them know they can bring their thoughts to you and get a fair hearing.
- Review employee performance. Some workers may take shortcuts or skip precautions, figuring easier-and-quicker is better than safer. Other employees may skip out on training if they get the chance. Keep track of which workers take classes and which ones follow the rules. Cite them as an example to others.
- Keep machinery in good working order. Develop a regular maintenance program for any dangerous machines in your workplace. Check that any protective devices such as machine guards are in good shape. See that any warning signs or instructions that should be posted are indeed visible.
- If your staff does use personal protective equipment, take the time to choose the right equipment in the correct sizes. Buy good, reliable PPE, rather than cutting costs and putting employees at risk.
- Provide training programs. These can be on-site, online or customized to suit your company.
- Review and update your safety precautions every year. At the start of the year, inspect your facilities. Look for out-of-date equipment or deficiencies. See whether any of your current precautions or policies are out of date. OSHA regularly updates its rules, so you need to stay current.
Read More: Workplace Safety Requirements
Fraser Sherman has written about bankruptcy law, real estate law, tax law, business law and several other categories. He lives in Durham NC with his awesome wife and two wonderful dogs. His website is frasersherman.com