Andrea is a practicing attorney and MBA with 15 years experience in health care administration, litigation and business law.
OSHA & Safety Standards
Each year almost three out of every 100 workers will suffer a workplace injury or illness serious enough for them to miss work. That amounts to millions of workplace injuries, countless lost days of work, and billions of dollars every year. Even worse, in 2011 alone, more 4,600 workers were killed on the job. That equals almost 90 workers a week or nearly 13 deaths on the job every day. Given those staggering figures, it's no surprise that the issue of workplace safety is so important for both workers and their employers.
There are many laws governing workplace safety at virtually every level of government, from national and state regulations to local ordinances. These laws are designed to protect employees from unsafe or unhealthy working conditions. The purpose is to reduce the risk of accidental injury, death, or disease in the workplace. Some regulations govern safety standards in specific industries that tend to pose more danger, such as coal mining and railroads. For most workers there are two important sources of workplace safety laws: the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) at the federal level and various workers' compensation laws at the state level.
Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers are responsible for providing a safe and healthy work environment. The Act requires employers to comply with specific occupational safety and health standards and to keep records of occupational injuries and illnesses. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is the federal agency responsible for enforcing the Act. OSHA develops and enforces safety standards, and provides training, outreach, education, and assistance. OSHA has the power to conduct on-site inspections, issue citations, and levy penalties against employers for violations.
OSHA standards are rules that describe the methods that employers must use to protect their employees from hazards. There are standards designed for specific industries such as construction work, agriculture, and maritime operations, and general industry standards that apply to most other worksites. The standards limit the amount of hazardous chemicals workers can be exposed to, require the use of certain safety practices and equipment, and require employers to monitor hazards and keep records of workplace injuries and illnesses.
Examples of OSHA standards include requirements to provide fall protection, prevent exposure to harmful substances like asbestos, put guards on machines, provide respirators or other safety equipment, and provide training for certain dangerous jobs.
Inspections and Safer Working Conditions
OSHA has the power to conduct workplace inspections to make sure that employers are complying with OSHA standards. Workers may file a complaint to have OSHA inspect their workplace if they believe their employer is not following OSHA standards or that there are serious hazards. OSHA inspectors have the right to enter a workplace without notice to examine the work environment, inspect equipment and materials, and to ask questions of employees and management.
Penalties for violations of OSHA standards may include citations, criminal penalties, or substantial fines. These fines can range from no fine for minor violations to several millions of dollars for companies guilty of multiple, repeated, or particularly egregious infractions. Some company executives have even spent time in jail for recklessly endangering workers.
The good news is that occupational safety laws are working. Workplace injuries and deaths have dropped dramatically in the past few decades. Since 1970, workplace fatalities have dropped by more than 65%, and occupational injury and illness rates have declined by 67%. Deaths are down from about 38 worker deaths a day in 1970 to 13 a day in 2011. Worker injuries and illnesses are also down from 10.9 incidents per 100 workers in 1972 to fewer than 4 per 100 in 2010.
Workers' compensation is a program that provides medical care, income continuation, and rehabilitation for workers who sustain injuries or illness on the job. Death benefits are also available for family members of workers who suffer work-related deaths.
Workers' compensation is administered by the states and governed by state law. The majority of states require workers' compensation for nearly all workers, including part-time employees. Even nonprofit corporations, unincorporated businesses, and employers with only one employee must comply with the requirements.
Programs differ from state to state, and sometimes not every worker is eligible. Some employees may be covered by other compensation laws, including federal civilian employees, railroad workers, longshoremen, shipyard, and harbor workers. Other groups who may not be covered include volunteer workers, agricultural laborers, casual employees, and domestic workers. Workers compensation is optional in only a few states.
Workers' compensation programs are designed to provide a no-fault remedy for workers who are injured on the job. No fault means that benefits are not dependent on who was to blame for the accident. Even workers who were at fault for their accident can collect. There are some limitations, however. Generally, employees can't collect benefits for intentionally self-inflicted injuries or those caused by intoxication or illegal activity such as illicit drug use. In exchange for collecting benefits, the employee gives up the right to sue his or her employer for the same injury. The no-fault system benefits workers and protects employers from numerous lawsuits and unpredictable awards for workplace injuries.
In addition to the legally mandated requirements, workplace safety is an important issue of social responsibility for companies. Managers have a social and moral responsibility not to sacrifice employee health and safety in the pursuit of profits. A workplace culture that places a greater value on productivity or cost cutting over the safety of its people can face big problems.
In addition to being the right thing to do for workers, failing to ensure safe working conditions can have a big impact on the bottom line. The consequences of these decisions can be more far reaching than lost work days and mounting liability, including loss of employee morale, mistrust of management, damage to the company's reputation, or worse, serious injury or death. In any successful organization, workplace safety that exceeds the minimum standards required by law is a top priority for management that serves the best interest of the company and its people.
Let's recap. As a result of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers are responsible for providing a safe and healthy work environment. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is the federal agency responsible for enforcing the Act, and it develops and enforces safety standards, and provides training, outreach, education, and assistance. Occupational safety laws have dramatically lowered workplace injuries since 1970.
Workers' compensation is a program offered at the state level that provides employees with medical care, income continuation, and rehabilitation for injuries sustained on the job. Additionally, workers' compensation programs are designed to provide a no-fault remedy, meaning that benefits are not dependent on who was to blame for the accident.
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