Occupational Health and Safety

AuthorJeffrey Wilson

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The Occupational Safety and Health Act, 29 U.S.C. 651 et seq. (1970) is the federal law that "assure[s] so far as possible every working man and woman … safe and healthful working conditions." The Act is administered by the correlative federal agency, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA).

OSHA applies to all private sector employers engaged in any business affecting commerce (which, by way of the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution [Art. I, Sec. 8], Congress derived its authority to exercise OSHA control over states). OSHA does not apply to public sector employees.

Employers with fewer than ten employees are exempt from some of OSHA's record-keeping requirements, as well as some of OSHA's penalties and enforcement measures. However, small employers must still comply with OSHA standards and provide a safe workplace for their employees.

The following are not covered by the OSH Act:

Self-employed persons

Farms at which only family members work

Public sector employees (unless they are included in a State OSHA-approved plan)

Those working conditions regulated by other federal agencies under other statutes. Examples include workplaces in the mining industry, nuclear energy and nuclear weapons industry, and much of the transportation industry.

Providing a Safe Workplace

OSHA mandates impose three obligations on employers. First, they are required to furnish a workplace "free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm" to employees. Second, they are required to comply with OSHA standards for workplace safety and health. Third, they are required to maintain records of employee injuries, deaths, illnesses, and exposures to toxic substances. They must also preserve all employee medical records.

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Accident Prevention Programs

OSHA requires that every employer establish and maintain an Accident Prevention Program. The program must include training that will inform workers of hazards and teach them about safe work practices, including special instructions peculiar to their industry or peculiar to any special hazards.

An approved accident prevention program includes general training applicable to all workers, such as providing examples of the best ways to lift objects or the fastest way to exit a building. Instructions on the use of personal protective equipment, especially respirators, is a common subject for training.

A second part of an employer's accident prevention program involves the establishment of procedure to conduct internal inspections or reviews to help detect unsafe conditions and correct them before accidents happen. Many larger companies maintain a "Risk Assessment" office or have an employee whose entire job may be to detect and correct potential safety risks and hazards.

Workers' Right to Know

OSHA's Federal Hazard Communication Standard (29 CFR 1910.1200) requires employers to set up "hazard communication programs." Such programs are designed to inform employees about the health effects of toxic or chemical exposure and ways to prevent such exposures.

Hazardous Materials

The Hazard Communication Standard requires that Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) be made available at the workplace for each and every chemical or hazardous product that an employee may come in contact with, and the ingredients of which may cause physical or health hazards. MSDS are prepared and supplied by the product's manufacturer and generally summarize the ingredients, the hazards to humans, and safe handling techniques when using the product. At the worksite, containers holding the product must have warning labels and/or other written signs describing the product's hazards.

Employers are also required to instruct employees on how to read the MSDS and make proper use of the information they contain. Employees must be...

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