If you are a teacher, you probably chose your profession out of a desire to help students learn. In order to do that, you need a healthy, safe work environment. However, some schools may fail to provide you with the working conditions you need to do your job with confidence. Fortunately, many teachers and other employees who work in both public and private school settings are entitled to have such concerns addressed by a federal or state agency.
OSHA Requirements for Schools
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines and regulates safe, healthy working conditions for employees under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. OSHA is a federal agency and does not cover public sector employees such as teachers in public schools, although federal employees and employees of private schools are covered. However, 26 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have OSHA-approved state plans. Of these, 22 cover private workplaces, as well as state and local government workplaces; the others cover state and local government workers only. These states and territories can apply their own OSHA standards for teachers working in public schools. These standards must match or exceed the federal OSHA standards. If you're a public school teacher or other school employee in a state or territory with an OSHA-approved state plan, you have the right to a safe work environment.
OSHA Standards for School Employees
For private school teachers and public school teachers in states or territories that have adopted OSHA standards, basic protections and regulations apply. All school employees are entitled to:
- work in a safe environment that is free from health and safety hazards
- speak up without retaliation if the workplace is unsafe or unhealthy
- request an OSHA inspection and speak to the inspector
- report any illnesses or injuries sustained in the workplace
- obtain copies of your medical records and test results regarding hazards in workplace
- review copies of workplace injury logs and illness records
- receive training in a language you understand
- machines and equipment that are safe to operate or handle
- safety gear if required
- protection from toxic chemicals
OSHA Guidelines for Schools
OSHA guidelines for schools are the same as for all other employers. OSHA violations that might occur in schools include:
- Unsafe machines or equipment: A poorly maintained or incorrectly modified jack used to service a school bus is an example of a hazardous working condition covered by OSHA, so asking an employee to use such a piece of equipment without proper training is a violation.
- Unhealthy indoor air quality: Asbestos that has been disturbed due to repair work or remodeling of a school is an example of an unsafe indoor air quality issue that is covered by OSHA. Regulations for schools that involve indoor air quality may also be managed by the state's department of education and the Environmental Protection Agency.
- Inability to execute an emergency action plan: Blocked or inaccessible emergency exits are an example of a dangerous and unacceptable workplace scenario covered by OSHA, which has very clear regulations concerning fire safety.
If you think that your workplace is unsafe, you have the right to contact your regional OSHA office and request a workplace inspection. You also have the right to ask that your name be withheld from your employer so they do not know who requested the inspection, and you have the right to be free from any retaliation or harassment for making such a request. If you request an OSHA workplace inspection and are then retaliated against, harassed or fired, you have protections under OSHA's Whistleblower Protection Program.