The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) is the primary federal statute that obligates employers to provide their employees with a safe workplace. It is important to keep in mind that in addition to rights available to employees under OSHA, employees also have rights under state law, such as, for example, under workers’ compensation laws. The focus of this posting is to summarize the scope of OSHA and how it impacts employers and employees.
OSHA is administered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a division of the federal Department of Labor. The provisions of OSHA are enforced solely by the Department of Labor. Thus, individual employees may not initiate legal action in court against employers for OSHA violations. Rather, employees must file their complaints with the agency.
The policy of OSHA is to assure so far as possible safe and healthy working conditions for working men and women. Thus, employers have a legal obligation to provide their employees with “employment and a place of employment…free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to…employees.”
Towards this end, OSHA has promulgated a great number of safety standards that regulate hazards in the American workplace. In addition, to these specific standards, employers also must comply with the general duty to provide a workplace free of recognized hazards. This general duty prohibits an employer from maintaining a condition that it knows to be hazardous, notwithstanding the employer may be in compliance with specific safety standards. The scope of the Department of Labor’s enforcement authority is slightly different when proving a violation of a specific standard as opposed to a violation of an employer’s general duty to provide a safe workplace.
Thus, when the Secretary of Labor is alleging an employer’s violation of a specific standard, she must prove: (1) the applicability of the standard, (2) the employer’s non-compliance with the standard, (3) employee exposure to the hazard and (4) the employer had knowledge of the hazard. On the other hand, when the Secretary of Labor is alleging a violation of en employer’s general duty to provide a safe workplace, the Secretary must show: (1) the existence of a hazard that is recognized by the employer or the industry, (2) the hazard is causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm, (3) the employer has failed to make its workplace free of the hazard, and (4) there exists a feasible means of abatement of the hazard.
In addition, OSHA imposes record-keeping obligation on employers. Thus, an employer must keep records of injuries and illnesses and make the same available to employees. Employers must also implement programs to warn employees regarding hazardous substances and retain records regarding employee exposure to such substances.
Finally, as noted above, only the Department of Labor can enforce the provisions of OSHA. The enforcement process can start with a job site inspection. In addition to inspections, the Agency also addresses employee complaints specifying workplace hazardous conditions.
Gallon, Takacs, Boissoneault & Schaffer Co. L.P.A.