Your Rights to a Safe Workplace

Americans have the right to expect a safe workplace environment, free of hazards and conditions that could lead to injury or illness. The 1970 federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which sets safety standards for employers to follow.

The act covers almost all employers and employees in the United States and its territories. Exemptions include self-employed persons and family farms. While it covers federal employees, the law does not include state and local government employees, although many states have similar laws. The OSH Act does not apply to areas addressed by other federal laws.

OSHA's standards address cleanliness, care of equipment, and handling dangerous machinery and materials. The Code of Federal Regulations contains the OSHA standards and is available in law libraries and many county courthouses. 

When proposing new safety guidelines, the agency prints them in the Federal Register and asks for public comment. An employer may request an exemption from a standard. In these instances, the workers have the right to a hearing on the matter.

OSHA has the authority to inspect a workplace. Workers have the right to have a representative accompany the OSHA official on the inspection or have the official interview employees about working conditions.

Employers and employees each have responsibilities in maintaining workplace safety. The employer should strive for safe and healthy conditions with an awareness of possible hazards. Management should provide safe equipment and insist that workers follow OSHA guidelines when operating machinery and handling materials.

Employers should also keep workers informed by providing copies of the standards, posting OSHA notices, and listing employee workplace rights. The agency requires companies with 11 or more workers to record job-related injuries and illnesses.

Employees should read OSHA posters on the job site and follow all OSHA standards and management's safety rules. They should use the protective equipment supplied to them and report to the employer any unsafe conditions or injuries. Finally, employees should cooperate with OSHA officials when asked about working conditions.

If a worker suspects that management is discriminating against him or her because of the exercising of OSHA rights, the employee can file a complaint with OSHA. The agency will confidentially investigate the claim.

While workplace accidents do happen, OSHA standards strive to minimize them. Cooperative efforts by management and employees can contribute to a higher safety level in the workplace.