Workplace Safety: OSHA and OSH Act Overview
Employees have the right to a safe workplace free of known dangers to themselves and their co-workers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is the government agency in charge of setting standards, providing information and training to employees and employers, and generally making sure that America's workforce stays healthy and safe.
Employee Rights Under OSHA and the OSH Act
The primary law covering worker safety is the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act of 1970. The primary goal of this law is to reduce workplace hazards and implement safety and health programs for both employers and their employees. To this end, the OSH Act and related regulations from OSHA give employees a number of rights, including the rights to:
- get clear training and information in layman's terms on the hazards of their workplace, ways to avoid harm, and applicable OSHA standards and laws;
- obtain and review documentation on work-related illnesses and injuries at the job site;
- confidentially make a complaint with OSHA to have an inspection of the workplace;
- if desired, accompany and take part in a requested OSHA inspection of the workplace;
- get copies of any tests done to measure workplace hazards (e.g. chemical, air, and similar testing);
- not be discriminated or retaliated against for making OSHA-related complaints or inquiries.
Supplementing these rights are a number of obligations and duties imposed on employers to maintain a safe work environment.
Employers' Obligations Under the OSH Act
In addition to, or in connection with, the employee rights outlined above, under the OSH Act and OSHA guidelines, employers have the obligations to:
- first and foremost, provide a safe workplace free of serious hazards;
- find health and safety hazards;
- if hazards exist, eliminate or minimize them;
- if workplace hazards cannot be eliminated, provide employees with adequate safeguards and protective gear at no cost to them;
- notify employees of any hazards and provide the training necessary to address them;
- post a list of OSHA injuries and citations, plus the OSHA poster in a place where employees will see them;
- maintain records of work-related injuries.
Workplace Hazards and OSHA Inspections
If an employer is not addressing a workplace hazard that has been brought to its attention, an employee should contact an OSHA area office or state office via a written complaint. As noted above, there are ways to do this anonymously, even though the law prohibits employers from discriminating or retaliating against safety whistleblowers. Once the report is made, OSHA or its state counterpart will determine whether or not there are reasonable grounds for believing that a violation or danger exists. If so, the agency at issue will conduct an inspection and report its findings to the employer and employee representatives, including any steps that need to be taken to correct safety and health issues.