Federal law requires employers to provide a safe workplace that does not expose workers to conditions that could cause injuries, illnesses or death. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration provides compliance guidelines and materials to companies so they can meet federal standards more easily.
Some jobs require employees to work with toxic materials, such as chemicals. To prevent harm, the risk must be mitigated, which typically involves providing information and education about the substances.
All toxic materials must have the proper identification and warning labels prominently displayed on their containers, as well as in locations where they may be stored or used. Employers must also keep a Material Safety Data Sheet on every toxin the employee may encounter on the job. One sheet may include a single substance, but a product that includes the same substance must have a separate sheet. Instructions on the storage, use and disposal must be included on an MSDS. The sheet must also contain information about what will happen if the substance is inhaled or ingested, or if it comes in contact with a person’s eyes or skin. The sheet must also list all necessary first aid information.
Employers must also provide the proper conditions for exposure or use of toxins, such as appropriate ventilation and personal protective equipment.
OSHA warns that there are many biological agents that might pose a threat of serious illness or fatality. These include bloodborne pathogens, viruses, mold and anthrax, among others. Health care workers and those in related industries are most often the types of employees exposed to these hazards, although they are certainly not the only ones at risk. For example, Legionnaires’ Disease is an illness caused by bacteria in water systems and other areas such as hot tubs or swimming pools that are not properly maintained. Bird flu may affect people who work with poultry, while the Ebola virus could affect anyone who comes in contact with a single viral particle. Bacteria, toxins, protein particles and viruses may lead to foodborne illnesses in a variety of workplace situations.
Some workers must use equipment that could cause significant injury or fatality in an accident. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics lists mining, construction, manufacturing and agriculture as industries consistently known for their high rate of injuries and fatalities. Maintaining heavy machinery, properly instructing all operators and providing appropriate safety gear are some of the responsibilities employers have to prevent harm.
Repetitive Motion Injuries
Although sitting or standing in one place to perform job duties may not seem as if it is an exposure risk, the repetitive nature of some jobs can lead to serious musculoskeletal disorders. In addition to the muscles, ligaments and tendons, the nerves and blood vessels are also affected by this type of injury. MSDs include carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis, neck and spinal injuries and others.
An ergonomic workstation is particularly important in reducing the threat of repetitive motion injuries. The principles of ergonomics involve creating a work environment that is unique to the person who must work in it. This may include a station with a desk chair, keyboard and computer screen that are at the right height for an individual office worker to prevent strain on the back, hips, knees, wrists and hands.
Exposure and Employee Rights
If an employee identifies an unsafe working condition, he or she should report it immediately. This is to the employer’s advantage, as it gives the opportunity to prevent an accident. If the employer does not address a hazard that creates an imminent danger, though, the employee has the right to file a complaint with OSHA. The employee also has the right to report an injury, as well as access records of the exposures and injuries that occurred at that company. A worker may refuse to work in a situation where he or she believes there is a threat of imminent harm.
OSHA whistleblowing statutes prohibit employers from adverse actions such as termination, pay reduction or demotion of the employee. An employer must never retaliate against an employee who has reported a violation or threat to health and safety in the workplace.
Preventing unsafe exposure of any kind is an ongoing responsibility, and enlisting the assistance of employees can contribute to company compliance.
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