In 1970, President Richard M. Nixon signed the Williams-Steiger Occupational Safety and Health Act. It was a bipartisan bill and was made to address the dangerous working conditions prevalent in the United States at the time. The following year, this law created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Studies estimate that OSHA led to a 65% reduction of workplace-related incidents since its creation. 14,000 workers were believed to have died while working in 1970. In 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that only 4,500 people were killed.
What is OSHA?
The objective of OSHA is to ensure that working conditions for both men and women are safe. It accomplishes this by laying down and enforcing specific standards of safety. OSHA is also involved in outreach, information dissemination, and guidance on compliance. The OSHA law also gave employers the responsibility to keep workplaces safe. This mandate is also known as the General Duty Clause of the OSH Act.
Placing the onus on the employers is not unique to the General Duty Clause. For example, in California, laws state that the owner has premise liability in personal injuries like the slip and fall. According to attorney Jonathan M. Genish, "Unsafe conditions make the owner liable. However, this is not absolute because the law also recognizes comparative negligence. Damages are proportionate to the extent of the owner's fault."
The General Duty Clause lists four elements that will constitute its violation. The first is when the employees are in danger because of the employer's failure to keep the place safe. Next is that it is a known hazard in the industry. Related to the second element is that the threat caused or can cause death or injury. Finally, the hazardous situation is preventable through reasonable means.
OSHA has broad coverage. It covers private sector workers, state and local government workers, and federal government workers. However, its jurisdiction is not absolute. Self-employed individuals and immediate family members of farm employers are not under OSHA. The organization also cannot overrule the authority of another federal agency like the Coast Guard or the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
The OSHA Standards
OSHA has rules, called standards, that detail how employers can protect their employees from workplace hazards. There are four standards. These are general industry, maritime, agriculture, and construction.
OSHA sets the limits of exposure to dangerous chemicals, materials, or noise. The employer must provide free safety equipment like gloves, masks, and goggles if there are hazards expected from the job.
OSHA standards also state that employers need to monitor the hazards and keep records of injuries or sicknesses that happen in their premises.
Information is a valuable tool. OSHA states that workers and their representatives have the right to access information. It is part of the employer's responsibilities to brief the workers of any hazards present. The employees should undergo training on how to handle the dangers they encounter on the job. A good representation of this standard is that OSHA standards require the use of warning signs.
OSHA also makes sure that workplaces follow their standards. If the agency suspects that the employers are unable to meet the rules, it can conduct inspections without prior warning. Reviews can be done over the phone, electronically, or through on-site visits.
A currently employed worker or someone who represents them may file a complaint with OSHA and request for a workplace inspection. A worker can report violations or concerns anonymously. OSHA is not required to tell the employers where they got the information of workplace safety violations.
Even if the employer found out, the OSH Act prohibits an employer to fire, demote, or do any act of retaliation against an employee'. The agency ensures that whistleblower laws are respected. Examples of these laws are the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act and Clean Air Act.
OSHA has a program called the Severe Violator Enforcement Program, which took effect on June 18, 2010. If an employer is found to be repeatedly and knowingly exposing its workers to severe dangers, the program defines what to do. It can include follow-up inspections, settlement, and even filing federal cases.
Guidelines on Dangerous Situations
OSHA recommends that a worker who discovers a dangerous work situation should bring it up to the employer. The worker may also go straight to OSHA with a complaint. However, workers cannot leave the worksite immediately after filing a complaint. Workers may only refuse to return to work if the danger is clear and can cause death or severe injury, there is not enough time for an OSHA inspection, or the employer knew of the situation.