For over fifty years, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has offered guidelines for the health and safety of workers in all industries. While OSHA requirements for offices are more lenient than they are for other types of work locations, federal law entitles those who work in an office to certain rights to a safe workplace and allows them to speak openly about their concerns about working conditions without fear of employer retaliation.
OSHA Laws and the OSH Act
In 1970, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) became a federal labor law governing private sector businesses in the U.S. It covers companies in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and all U.S. territories. Federal OSHA, through the Department of Labor, or an OSHA-approved state safety and health plan, covers all workers, depending upon the nature of the industry. For example, those who work on military bases have coverage through federal OSHA, whereas workers at local government agencies may have coverage through state programs.
When a federal agency is in violation, OSHA does not issue a fine; rather, it monitors that agency through OSHA inspections. And there are some industries and professions that the Act does not cover. They are:
- Self-employed workers.
- Farms employing only immediate members of the farmer's family.
- Agencies operating through other federal laws, such as nuclear energy, weapons manufacturing, transportation industries and mining.
- State and local government employees, unless they are located in a state with an OSHA-approved plan.
OSHA Compliance and Employee Rights
Through OSHA, employees have the right to voice concerns confidentially about any health and safety violations at their workplace. They must notify the federal agency within 30 days of the time they discovered the violation and can even legally refuse to work if they feel unsafe. Employees can file complaints by calling 1-800-321-OSHA (6742) or contact their nearest OSHA office through OSHA's website, www.osha.gov.
OSHA standards require that a business limit hazardous chemicals, substances or noise in the workplace that can potentially harm workers. If they cannot limit these conditions, they must provide personal protective equipment, or PPE. This includes respirators, gloves, earplugs and safety eyewear, which must be free to the employee. All companies must employ safe work practices and equipment for their workers, monitor specific health hazards and have a recordkeeping system for work-related injuries and illnesses.
Employer Responsibilities for Bathrooms, Drinking Water and Pests
Employers must follow the General Duty Clause of the OSH Act, which requires businesses to make a worksite safe for employees with no known hazards that can potentially cause serious physical harm or death. OSHA standards also require a business to provide safe water and allow workers to drink it. This can include tap water. A company cannot require that workers pay for water and does not have to provide bottled water if safe tap water is available.
Toilets must also be accessible to workers when they need to use them; employers cannot restrict someone from using the bathroom. OSHA also has a sanitation standard that requires companies to construct, equip and maintain their place of business with measures to prevent a rodent or insect infestation. In the event one occurs, the employer must implement extermination techniques.
OSHA does not require businesses to provide heat or air conditioning, but does suggest that the temperature range in the workplace be between 68 degrees F to 76 degrees F. Employees have the right work in an office with a comfortable temperature and humidity, access to adequate and fresh outdoor air when needed, and protection from pollutants both inside and outside their workplace.
A company must also protect employees from temperature extremes. It should have a heat illness prevention program in which it provides workers with:
- Drinkable water.
- If it is hot, more breaks for workers to tolerate working in warmer temperatures.
- Different work schedules if it is too hot.
- An emergency plan if it is too hot and first-aid-trained workers who know the symptoms of heat-related illnesses.
- Monitoring for signs of heat-related illness.
COVID-19 and OSHA Recommendations
OSHA doesn't have specific health standards for offices during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it has general recommendations that apply to businesses and distinct guidelines for specialized industries. The agency recommends employers put the following general industry practices in place:
- The designation of a workplace coordinator responsible for COVID-19 concerns on a business's behalf.
- Identifying how and where exposure to COVID-19 can occur in the workplace through a hazard assessment.
- Creating measures to limit workplace spread of COVID-19, including remote work, physical distancing, barriers where distancing is impossible, using masks and PPE, better ventilation, the addition of hygiene practices and supplies, routine cleaning and disinfection.
- Consideration of protections for high-risk workers, particularly seniors and the
- Supportive workplace practices and policies.
Employers should educate and train employees on COVID-19 policies in the workplace in an easy-to-understand format and language for both English and non-English speakers, as well as for those who communicate using American Sign Language. These methods should also be accessible to physically challenged workers, contractors, and anyone else who enters the work space. Employees can also report possible COVID-19 symptoms, exposure or hazards without fear of reprisal, according to federal law.
COVID-19 and PPE in the Workplace
During the pandemic, OSHA recommends all workers take personal safety measures by:
- Staying at least 6 feet away from others in enclosed or poorly ventilated spaces.
- Practicing consistent personal hygiene with frequent hand washing and covering sneezes and coughs.
- Monitoring themselves for COVID-19 symptoms.
- Wearing face coverings or other PPE while at work. This also applies to vaccinated workers.
Many companies have COVID-19 prevention programs already established to keep workers safe when they return to the office. Upon returning, employees should ask their employers about the plans they have in place. Federal law requires that businesses create a safe workplace for all employees; if employers do not take measures to protect workers from COVID-19 or other potential workplace hazards, employees can share their concerns with OSHA by filing a complaint. If they are a victim of retaliation as a result of contacting OSHA, they can file a whistleblower protection complaint with the agency.
- OSHA.gov: OSHA Frequently Asked Questions
- OSHA.gov: OSHA Offices by State
- OHSA.gov: OSH Act of 1970
- OHSA.gov: 1910.141 - Sanitation
- OSHA: Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace
- OSHA: File a Complaint
- OSHA: OSHA ONLINE WHISTLEBLOWER COMPLAINT FORM
Michelle Nati is an associate editor and writer who has reported on legal, criminal and government news for PasadenaNow.com and Complex Media. She holds a B.A. in Communications and English from Niagara University.