In 1970, Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act (the OSH Act), a comprehensive law designed to reduce workplace hazards and improve health and safety programs for workers. (29 U.S.C. § § 651 to 678.) It broadly requires employers to provide a workplace free of physical dangers and to meet specific health and safety standards. Employers must also provide safety training to employees, inform them about hazardous chemicals, notify government administrators about serious workplace accidents, and keep detailed safety records. Although there can be heavy penalties for not complying with the OSH Act, such penalties are usually reserved for extreme cases in which workplace conditions are highly dangerous and the employer has ignored warnings about them. If your workplace is inspected— an unlikely event for a typical small business, unless there is an accident— the government will work with you to eliminate hazards.

Virtually all businesses must comply with the OSH Act, with a few exceptions. The OSH Act won’t apply to your workplace if any of the following are true: • You’re self-employed and have no employees. • Your business is a farm that employs only your immediate family members. • You’re in a business such as mining, which is already regulated by other federal safety laws.

The OSH Act sets a general standard for all covered businesses. As an employer, you must provide a place of employment that’s free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees. Recognized hazards are not clearly defined, which can make it difficult for you to know how to comply with the law. The broad language covers an almost impossibly large range of potential harm, from sharp objects that might cause cuts to radiation exposure. But there’s more. In the OSH Act, Congress created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration— called OSHA— as a unit of the U.S. Department of Labor. And, Congress authorized this agency to set additional workplace standards, which it has done in great profusion. The specific standards cover a wide range of workplace concerns, including:

  • exposure to hazardous chemicals
  • first aid and medical treatment
  • noise levels
  • protective gear, such as goggles, respirators, gloves, work shoes, and ear protectors
  • fire protection
  • worker training, and
  • workplace temperatures and ventilation.

You must post a notice called “Job Safety and Health Protection,” which is available from the nearest OSHA office. If your business is located in a state that has its own approved OSHA program, you may have to post a state form instead of the national version. Check with your state OSHA office to find out. (See “State OSHA Laws,” below, for contact details.) You must notify OSHA within eight hours after learning that an employee has died from a job-related accident or that three or more employees have been hospitalized because of a workplace accident. Call or visit an OSHA office to report the location and time of the incident, the number of fatalities or hospitalized employees, the name and phone number of a contact person, and a brief description of the incident. Expect a follow-up investigation. Unless your business is exempt from OSHA record-keeping requirements, you must maintain several types of records.

  • Injury and illness log. You must keep a log (OSHA Form 300) of all workplace injuries and illnesses, except minor injuries requiring only first aid. Throughout February, you must post the log for the previous year.
  • Medical records. You must keep up-to-date medical records and records of employee exposure to hazardous substances or harmful physical agents.
  • Training records. You must keep records of your safety training sessions and make them available for review by employees.
  • Retention. You must maintain required records for specified periods of time, sometimes as long as 30 years.

OSHA inspectors can inspect your workplace at any time without advance notice or authorization by a court. Based on what they find there, they can issue citations and impose penalties. However, inspectors are unlikely to make random inspections unless you’re in a particularly hazardous business, such as construction. There aren’t enough inspectors to go around; OSHA must use its resources prudently. If you have a workplace with ten or fewer employees and you’re in an industry that has a low injury rate, you’re exempt from random inspections by federal OSHA officials. State safety and health laws, however, may empower local inspectors to randomly inspect smaller businesses. But if yours is a small insurance agency, retail store, computer repair shop, or similar low-injury business, your chances of receiving a random inspection are remote. Most small businesses are inspected only if one of the following occurs:

  • An employee has complained to OSHA.
  • A worker has died from a job-related injury.
  • Three or more employees have been hospitalized because of a workplace condition.

As explained above, you’re required to report such fatalities and hospitalizations to OSHA. Even though you may be at low risk of inspection, you’re not free to ignore safety and health concerns. You’re legally required to take the initiative in identifying and eliminating safety and health problems that can affect employees.

A typical inspection follows a set pattern.

The opening conference. The inspector meets with you and a representative selected by your employees. All of you discuss procedures for the inspection. The inspector reviews your records on health and safety problems as well as any steps you’ve taken to monitor workplace conditions such as noise, ventilation, and hazardous chemicals.

The walkaround. The inspector observes the working conditions, looking for signs of health and safety hazards. Are all required signs and notices posted ? Are there strong odors in the air? Eye irritants? Dust or fumes? How about noise and temperature levels? Are there signs of spilled or leaking chemicals? These and other problems are noted. The inspector may make measurements of noise levels and take samples of dust and air to be analyzed.

Review of safety and health programs. The inspector checks to make sure that you have qualified people and the right equipment to monitor levels of hazardous materials. The inspector also looks at whether your employees are taking part in training programs on workplace hazards and emergency procedures.

The closing conference. The inspector discusses the safety hazards that have been found and ways to correct the problems. You’re given a specific deadline by which you must make the corrections. The inspector documents all violations of OSHA standards and, if a violation is more than a minor one, issues a citation. If you receive an OSHA citation, you must post it near where the violations occurred. This allows employees to get involved in any further enforcement actions by OSHA.

Penalties ordered by OSHA depend on the seriousness of the violation. For willful or repeated violations, your company may have to pay thousands of dollars in penalties. And, if a worker has died because you violated OSHA standards, you could even be sent to prison. For less serious violations— problems that are unlikely to cause serious harm or death— the penalty may be up to $ 1,000. In assessing penalties, OSHA looks at several factors, including:

  • the seriousness of the hazard
  • your history of violations
  • whether you’ve made a good faith effort to comply with OSHA standards, and
  • the size of your business.

You can challenge an OSHA citation through an appeal process. If the citation is issued by the federal OSHA, you have 15 days to file a notice of contest with the agency. If a state OSHA issues citations in your state, check with that agency to confirm the filing deadline. It makes sense to consult a lawyer before embarking on an appeal. After you file the notice of contest, an administrative law judge will conduct a hearing, giving you and others concerned a chance to present evidence. If you disagree with the decision of the administrative law judge, there’s an additional appeal process within OSHA. Ultimately, you can appeal to a court if you can’t reach an acceptable resolution within OSHA. Fortunately, most OSHA disputes are resolved through voluntary settlements.

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