If you are an employee in the United States, you are entitled to a safe workspace. Several federal laws require employers to provide a space free of known health and safety hazards. If you have a question about a health and safety issue at your workplace or would like to discuss your rights as a worker, you can call OSHA toll-free at 800-321-6742. You can also visit your local OSHA office.
A safe workspace should include the ability to be trained in a language you understand. You must be able to work on machines that are safe and be provided necessary safety gear. Below are a few additional workers rights to which you are entitled:
Protection from toxic chemicals
The ability to request an OSHA inspection and/or speak with the inspector
Report injury or illness
Receive copies of medical records
Receive copies of a workplace injury and illness log
Get copies of test results gleaned to find hazards in the workplace.
But what happens when something is wrong? How do you speak up without fear of retaliation? You have several avenues to pursue. If you believe your working conditions to be unsafe or unhealthful, you can file a confidential complaint with OSHA and solicit an inspection. Though workers can do this without discussing the situation with their employer, it is recommended you bring it to their attention. Regardless, see the Department of Labor’s website for instructions on how to file a Safety and Health Complaint.
If you have chosen to inform your employer of a specific safety-related situation and have experienced a form of retaliation—a demotion, firing, transfer, &c—you are entitled to file a whistleblower complaint. It is illegal for an employer to retaliate against a worker for utilizing their lawful rights. For instructions on how to file a whistleblower complaint, visit the Department of Labor’s Whistleblower Protection Programs website. Take care to file this complaint within 30 days of the alleged retaliation.
Employers and employees alike should take precautions to prevent potential workplace hazards. Some problems, however, may not be obvious—they could exist in the form of an inappropriately-used extension cord or a misplaced box of supplies. The National Safety Council utilizes a team of consultants who travel around the country to visit workplaces. These five hazards were identified by the National Safety Council as some of the most pervasive and common in the country.
Poor housekeeping. This can include everything from clutter blocking fire exits to accidentally hindering a ceiling sprinkler that may be deployed in case of a fire. If you notice something related to poor housekeeping, employees and employers should not wait for cleaning and sanitation crews to fix the issue. Try to clean and declutter as you go, or alert your supervisor to a potential problem.
Working at height. Though unsurprising, the NSC identifies the most hazards with working at height. The Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that falls from height-related work accounted for 14 percent of all workplace fatalities in 2014. If you work at height, develop safety standards relating to scaffolding, ladders, and emergency plans.
Chemicals. If your workplace uses or purchases chemicals, there needs to be a control system in place. All employees should understand what the chemicals are used for, why they were ordered, what they do, and how they can practice safety in their presence.
Electrical hazards. These hazards appear in the form of blocked breakers and inappropriately-used extension cords. Extensions are useful for temporarily supplying power to a certain source, but they should be used sparingly. Moreover, extension cords lying on the ground pose another hazard—an employee could trip and fall.
As an employer, it is your duty to provide a safe and hazard-free workspace for your employees. However, your efforts may only extend so far; employees must be trained properly and made aware of possible avenues for workplace safety discussion. It is therefore necessary for employers to create a culture of safety. Below, we have a few tips for starting this process and generating a broader conversation.
Proper Training—Your employees should know exactly what they’re doing—whether you own an advertising agency or a shipping warehouse. Taking the time and care necessary to properly train your employees will result in fewer accidents and a better, more transparent relationship.
Engaged Practices—If changing anything relating to workplace safety, be sure to include your employees (to the best of your ability). Utilize surveys as a voting tool for passing certain safety measures and allow employees to speak up about the hazards they perceive in their workday.
Safety Updates—If new standards are released by the Department of Labor, be sure to let your employees know. If possible, hold a meeting to discuss workplace and national safety updates. Workers should be aware of their rights.
Perception Surveys—The National Safety Council recently reported that 30% of Americans were afraid to report safety issues in the workplace. If you are curious to find out what your employees think about their space, consider conducting perception surveys. The NSC provides reliable feedback from employees of all ranks in your business or organization. For more information, visit the NSC website.
Under federal law, all employees are entitled to a safe workplace. OHSA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, seeks to uphold that promise. Nearly every employee in the nation comes under OSHA’s jurisdiction, though some exceptions exist: mining workers (who have their own Act), some transportation workers, many public employees, and the self-employed. Employers subject to the OSH Act have a general duty to provide work and a workplace free from serious hazards, and employees have the right to seek assistance in rectifying dangerous workplaces without fear of retaliation.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 created OSHA. The Act sought to assure safe and healthful working conditions for all workers in the United States. During World War II, United States industrial production increased dramatically; labor unions were more concerned with maintaining wages (inflation was severe) than with upholding workplace healthy and safety. The war ended, but workplace accident rates remained high, eventually beginning to rise. In the two years directly before OSHA’s enactment, more than 28,000 workers died on the job and two million were disabled or harmed in the workplace.
Several bills were introduced in order to combat workplace dangers—Lyndon B. Johnson introduced a comprehensive occupational health and safety bill to Congress in 1968, and Richard Nixon introduced two bills in 1969. Both congressional Democrats and Republicans introduced bills in 1970, and, in November, both chambers acted—The House passed the Republican compromise bill, while the Senate passed the Democratic bill.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 is found in the United States Code at title 29, chapter 15. If you would like more information about OSHA, we recommend reading All About OSHA, the U.S. Department of Labor’s publication detailing the sections of this Act. For more information about the Department of Labor’s workplace-related agencies, see their Workplace Safety and Health Index.
Watch a Video Introduction by National Safety Compliance