The Occupational Safety and Health Act was enacted by Congress in 1970 as a means of protecting workers from hazardous working conditions. Under the terms of the Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was created to issue and enforce workplace safety standards, while the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) was created to identify workplace dangers and determine how to minimize them.
Employers are responsible for providing a workplace that is free from known hazards, or follows OSHA guidelines in minimizing those hazards. The employer must display an official OSHA poster in a prominent location. The employer must also provide a clearly written and complete hazard communication program. Employee training must include training on OSHA standards, Material Data Safety Sheets, proper container labeling and other OSHA standards. Employees must also be informed of the existence and location of their medical and exposure records.
Employees are entitled to review the employer's comprehensive hazard communication plan at any time. They are entitled to access their own medical and exposure records. They are also entitled to review relevant OSHA guidelines, standards and procedures.
If an employee believes that there is a hazardous condition in the workplace, he or she is entitled to make a report to OSHA. An OSHA representative will visit the facility and may be accompanied by an employee representative if requested. The employee's name will be withheld from the employer if desired. Employees are also protected against retaliation by the employer.
Common OSHA Violations
Some of the more common OSHA violations involve employees that are working on scaffolding. OSHA regulations insist on proper protection for employees who are working on or near scaffolding that is ten feet or higher, but it is common for companies not to provide adequate protection. Other common violations include improper labeling of hazardous chemicals, failure to maintain adequate written documentation of chemicals, and failure to maintain an adequate respiratory protection program.
Penalties for Violation
The penalty for an OSHA violation depends largely on the severity of the violation and whether it has happened before. Penalties are usually limited to fines, although a situation that presents an immediate threat to employees may be handled onsite by the OSHA inspector. If the employer fails to immediately correct the hazardous situation, OSHA may seek a court injunction to shut down operations until the situation is stopped.
If an OSHA violation leads to the death of a worker, criminal charges may be filed. Although the OSHA charge is a misdemeanor resulting in a maximum sentence of six months in jail, local prosecutors may decide to file felony charges including manslaughter as well.
Additionally, employees who have been injured by OSHA violations may file suit in civil court. Toxic tort lawsuits, which seek civil damages for employees who were exposed to harmful chemicals, are increasingly common and may surface years after the original exposure took place.
OSHA guidelines are in place to protect workers from hazards in the workplace. OSHA recognizes that certain risks are unavoidable and has sought to develop standards to protect workers to the greatest possible extent. Employers are required to carefully follow all OSHA standards that are relevant to their particular workplace, and may be held civilly and criminally liable for willfully failing to do so.
Questions & Answers: Employee Health and Safety