'Working Wounded': Health and Safety at Work

D E A R R E A D E R S: We are a nation governed by law, which is why I'm devoting the next four columns to the most important laws impacting the workplace.

You may not be able to recall Aron Ralston's name, but I guarantee you remember his story. He was the Utah climber who was trapped by a large boulder and had to cut off his arm to survive. Ralston had to make a terrible choice, his arm or his life.

Luckily, we don't have to make such life or death decisions in the workplace anymore. The reason? The Occupational Safety and Health Act, which requires all employers to provide safe working conditions for all employees. This act covers everything from nuclear substances to ladders.

The act, enforced by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, has contributed to a reduction in work-related injuries and deaths. Before the administration's creation in 1971, more than 14,500 work-related deaths and 2.2 million injuries were reported annually, with safety laws left up to the states to create. In the last three decades, workplace deaths have been cut in half. The number of injuries and illnesses dropped by 40 percent.

I've listed a brief review of the key parts of the act below. For more information, check out Delpo & Guerin's Federal Employment Laws: A Desk Reference (Nolo Press, 2002).

You and the Law

Who must comply with OSH?

Any company that has at least one employee. However, the act does not apply to government workers (apparently private workers are more precious than public ones).

Employers must provide safe working conditions for all workers.

All employers must comply with general safety regulations issued by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) or by local state agencies (some states have chosen to implement and enforce their own safety regulations, but they must be at least as good as those in the Act.). There are additional safety standards that must be met in the categories of general industry, construction, maritime, long-shoring and agricultural. You'll have to check with OSHA (www.osha.gov or 800-321-6742) and your state agency to discover exactly what the rules are for your company.

Employers must keep their workplaces free of recognized hazards.

A recognized hazard is a condition or workplace practice that's been shown to cause death or serious injury. It may be identified by OSHA or is generally accepted in the industry.

Employers must submit to inspections.

In order to insure compliance with OSH, OSHA conducts random inspections. OSHA also inspects companies it has received complaints about.

Employees have rights under the OSH Act.

These include: include the right to: petition OSHA to adopt a new safety standard; file a complaint about unsafe working conditions or OSH violations; participate in company inspections; inspect their company's log of injuries and illnesses; petition their employer to learn about toxic substances at work or to ask their employer to inform them when they are being exposed to dangerous levels of toxins at work.

Employees are protected from retaliation.

The act clearly states that employers cannot retaliate against employees for filing a complaint under OSH. That said, retaliation does happen. So it's wise to check your company's whistleblower policies or state law or see an attorney before you report a violation or contact OSHA.

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