The Occupational Safety and Health Act is the main federal law requiring employers to provide a safe and healthy workplace. The law’s “general duty clause” requires you to maintain a workplace free of hazards that could cause death or serious physical harm.
The law, which is enforced by the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), also protects employees who blow the whistle about hazardous conditions in their workplaces.
State law: All Pennsylvania employers are covered under federal OSHA rules.
Currently, 21 states also establish their own job safety and health standards for all employers in those states. Three states provide standards only for public employers. By federal law, those state standards must be “at least as effective” as OSHA’s federal rules. Like Pennsylvania, most states adopt standards identical to federal ones. (For state-law details, see www.osha.gov/dcsp/osp.)
OSHA has cranked up its enforcement in recent years, especially targeting employers who are repeat or “willful” violators.
Fact: While the number of overall safety violations grew by only 8 percent from 2002 to 2006, the number of violations the agency cited as “willful” jumped by 44 percent. Willful violations are subject to the biggest fines.
OSHA is going after repeat offenders. Last year, the agency slapped 2,551 safety violations on employers who’d been cited previously for OSHA violations. That’s a 36 percent increase from 2002 levels.
How to comply
OSHA requires employers to post the following materials in a prominent place:
- Job safety posters that inform employees of their rights and responsibilities under the law. You also must make copies of the act and relevant OSHA rules available to employees if they request them. (For poster details, go to www.dol.gov/elaws/posters.htm.)
- Copies of OSHA violation citations. These must remain posted at or near the location of the alleged violation for three days or until you correct the violation, whichever is longer.
- Summaries of petitions for variances from standards and recordkeeping procedures.
- Log of occupational injuries and illnesses. For each location, keep a log for the current year, plus the five preceding years. Other records—such as medical records about occupational injuries—must be kept longer.
Also, it’s your responsibility to review workplace conditions regularly to ensure compliance with OSHA standards. That means employers must:
- Ensure that employees have safe tools and equipment, then properly maintain them.
- Use signs, posters or labels to warn employees of potential hazards.
- Establish operating procedures and communicate them to workers, so they can follow safety rules.
- Provide medical exams and training when required.
- Never discriminate or retaliate against employees who exercise their rights under OSHA, particularly whistle-blowers.
4 types of OSHA violations
Most OSHA inspections (about 55 percent) are “programmed” inspections, which means they’re planned and targeted at high-hazard industries or companies with high-injury rates. Accidents, employee complaints or “imminent danger” trigger the other inspections.
If an OSHA inspector visits, you could face four violations:
- On-the-spot corrections are the most minor. They can be corrected during the inspector’s visit and, therefore, don’t incur a fine. Example: A light bulb needs changing.
- Nonserious violations are ones that relate to job safety but probably wouldn’t cause death or serious harm. Maximum fine: $7,000.
- Serious violations are levied for safety hazards where “a substantial probability that death or serious physical harm” could result, and the employer “knew, or should have known, of the hazard.” Example: a blocked fire exit. Maximum fine: $7,000.
- Willful violations indicate a violation that “the employer intentionally and knowingly commits, or a violation that the employer commits with plain indifference to the law.” Example: misleading employees about the toxic nature of chemicals they’re working with. Maximum fine: $70,000. Additional penalties are also imposed for repeat violations, abatement violations and posting violations.
Bottom line: To avoid an inspection, make sure you’re running a safe workplace and constantly reviewing your safety efforts. Identify the greatest safety risks, and direct your efforts (and dollars) at those potential problems.
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