American employees have the right to expect a safe work environment free from hazards to the extent that is considered reasonable, and OSHA is the organization that sets rules and regulations in this regard. The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 led to the establishment of OSHA within the U.S. Department of Labor, and the organization is responsible for seeing that employees are protected while at work and that certain steps are taken to ensure safety in the workplace. Under OSHA, American employees have certain rights. For example, they are legally allowed to request to review safety rules and regulations in place in a particular work setting, and they are also allowed to review employee exposure or medical records, should they request to do so. If an employee feels there are safety lapses in the workplace, he or she may report them to OSHA, and he or she also has the right to have his or her name withheld to avoid the threat of retaliation from the employer.
OSHA also dictates that American employers make certain accommodations to ensure a safe work environment. In addition to keeping the workplace as hazard-free as possible, employers must make sure all employees are aware of steps and safety procedures in place in the work environment. An OSHA poster detailing OSHA’s terms must also be visible in the workplace where all employees can review it, and employers are also required to let employees know where they can find exposure or medical records when the employee is hired and, at minimum, once a year afterward.
In the event that an employee files a formal complaint with OSHA and it is determined that the complaint is likely justified and reasonable in nature, an inspection of the work environment will typically follow. A worker representative may take on a “shadow” role while the investigation is conducted, however this individual may not be selected by the business owner. Following the complete inspection, the OSHA representative typically meets with the employer and the worker representative to further assess any safety lapses and determine how to correct them.
Regardless of the type of work environment an employee spends time in, he or she may face exposure to various workplace hazards. They may be visible in nature, or they may involve airborne toxins or other hazards that are not readily visible. As stated, today’s employers are required to create a safe work environment free from hazards to the fullest degree possible, and a number of different laws exist to ensure this happens across all industries.
Among employer obligations in regard to workplace exposure is the fact that business owners must, by law, inform employees of any existing known dangers. Often, this information comes in the form of a Material Safety Data Sheet. The MSDS may contain a wealth of information, from the possible health concerns associated with a particular toxin to what employees should wear (for example, protective clothing or glasses) to minimize their risk of exposure.
Some work environments, such as factories or food-production facilities, are more prone to damaging substances or toxins simply due to the nature of the business. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may step in to offer guidelines for donning protective gear, ensuring a work area has proper ventilation or making sure potentially toxic or damaging substances or materials are kept separate from employees to enhance the safety of all. Employees who are fearful of workplace exposure or toxins may report perceived infractions without the risk of retaliation, because they are protected by law, should they decide to engage in “whistleblowing” practices. Therefore, it is of supreme importance that employers perform their due diligence in regard to workplace safety to avoid becoming the subject of a lawsuit or facing heavy fines.
Workplace exposure rules and regulations may also take into account smoking while at work. While there are no federal laws regarding smoking in the workplace, many states have enacted their own, so it is important for business owners to understand what workplace smoking rules apply to them.
Employers are obligated to create hazard-free work spaces for their employees to the fullest extent possible. Any employer who fails to do so runs the risk of fines or lawsuits.
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