Every employee has the right to a safe workplace. OSHA was created to make sure your rights are protected. OSHA regulations require employers to take specific measures to protect you from recognized hazards.
Over the past 40 years, OSHA regulations, training, and enforcement has reduced workplace fatalities by more than 60 percent and workplace injuries and illness by 40 percent. Still, the work continues. Each year, close to 5,200 Americans die from on the job accidents & injuries. That is more loss of life that during the attacks of September 11th. Worse, it is estimated that as many as 50,000 employees die due to exposure related illnesses. That is just death statistics, though. Non-fatal work related injuries and illnesses impact nearly 4.3 million American workers, at a cost of more than $156 billion dollars annually.
OSHA clearly is making a difference, but to me, and I hope to you as well, this is not enough. This section identifies the rights and the responsibilities both you and your employer have in regards to your safety on the job. It also tells you what you can do and who you should contact if you have additional questions or concerns.
Am I covered?
If you work for a company and not part of the government, than you are most likely covered by either the Federal OSHA regulations or if the state you work in opted to do so, State specific OSHA programs. Your employer is must comply with the applicable State/Federal OSHA regulations that relate to the type of work you and your company performs. If your employer fails to comply with a regulation, OSHA can fine them for violating health and safety standards.
If you are a Federal worker, you are covered by the agency you work for. Federal Agencies are required to maintain safety and health programs meeting the same standards that apply to private employers. The only difference here, is that Federal (except for the U.S. Postal Services) cannot be fined for violating health and safety standards.
What are my rights?
OSHA regulations enable workers to play an important role in the identification and correction of workplace hazards. It is always best to first contact your employer if you see a problem. Often, employers will correct hazardous conditions if they are called to their attention.
Workers also have specific rights under OSHA to:
- Receive employer provided training as specified and required by OSHA standards applicable to your scope of work.
- Request information from your employer about OSHA standards, worker injuries and illnesses, job hazards and workers’ rights. This includes your employer’s OSHA 300 log documenting occupational injuries and illnesses and any relevant exposure and medical records that are required to be maintained. Employers must provide information to you or your designated representative with 15 days of your request.
- Request your employer take action to protect you from hazards or correct OSHA violations. You can ask your employer to correct hazards even if they violating specific OSHA regulations. Make sure to keep copies of any requests you make or any other correspondence with your employer to correct hazards.
- File a complaint against your employer with OSHA. More information on filing a complaint is provided in a separate section below.
- Be involved during an OSHA inspection of your workplace. You have a right to talk privately and confidentially to the OSHA compliance officer and also may request an authorized employee representative (such as a union representative) accompany the OSHA compliance officer during the inspection. You are also allowed to point out any hazards (describe injuries, illnesses, or near misses resultant of those hazards). Also be sure to inform the inspector if conditions present during the inspection are different than normal working conditions (i.e. equipment shut down, windows opened, etc.).
- Be provided with the results of OSHA inspections at your workplace. OSHA will contact your employee representative to let them know whether your employer is in compliance. The inspector also will provide detailed information about the efforts your employer has taken to protect you from hazards.
- Participate in meetings or hearings to discuss objections your employer may have to OSHA’s citations or to changes in abatement deadlines.
- File a formal appeal of deadlines for correction of hazards.
- File a discrimination complaint (within 30 days) if you are punished or discriminated against for exercising your rights under OSHA or for refusing to work when faced with imminent danger of death or serious injury.
- Request a research investigation be completed to review possible workplace health hazards. Contact the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to request a health hazard evaluation if you are concerned about toxic effects of a substance in the workplace.
- Provide comments and/or testimony to OSHA during research and rule-making on new standards.
What are my responsibilities?
Very simply, OSHA requires that employees comply with all safety and health standards that apply to their actions on the job. Employees should:
- Read the OSHA safety and health poster.
- Follow their employer’s safety and health rules and wear or use all required protective gear and equipment.
- Follow safe work procedures for your job, as directed by your employer.
- Report hazardous conditions to a supervisor or your company safety committee.
- If your employer does not fix hazardous conditions you report, contact OSHA.
What must my employer do?
The Occupational Safety and Health Act requires employers to provide a safe and healthful workplace free of recognized hazards and to follow OSHA standards. Employer Responsibilities also include providing training, medical examinations and recordkeeping.
What if I think my workplace is unsafe?
If you believe working conditions are unsafe or unhealthful, we recommend that you bring the conditions to your employer’s attention, if possible. Your employer may want to contact OSHA or your state consultation service in order to gather information about how to improve working conditions.
You may file a complaint with OSHA concerning a hazardous working condition at any time. However, you should not leave the worksite merely because you have filed a complaint. If the condition clearly presents a risk of death or serious physical harm, there is not sufficient time for OSHA to inspect, and, where possible, you have brought the condition to the attention of your employer, you may have a legal right to refuse to work in a situation in which you would be exposed to the hazard. You may file a complaint with OSHA if you believe there may be a violation of an OSHA standard or a serious safety or health hazard at work. You may request that your name not be revealed to your employer. You can file a complaint on this web site, in writing or by telephone to the nearest your OSHA area office. You may also call the office and speak with an OSHA compliance officer about a hazard, violation, or the process for filing a complaint.
What if I am in imminent danger?
Call (800) 321-OSHA immediately to report imminent dangers
Definition of Imminent Danger
Section 13(a) of the Act defines imminent danger as “…..any conditions or practices in any place of employment which are such that a danger exists which could reasonably be expected to cause death or serious physical harm immediately or before the imminence of such danger can be eliminated through the enforcement procedures otherwise provided by this Act.”
Requirements. The following conditions must be met before a hazard becomes an imminent danger:
- There must be a threat of death or serious physical harm. “Serious physical harm” means that a part of the body is damaged so severely that it cannot be used or cannot be used very well.
- For a health hazard there must be a reasonable expectation that toxic substances or other health hazards are present and exposure to them will shorten life or cause substantial reduction in physical or mental efficiency. The harm caused by the health hazard does not have to happen immediately.
- The threat must be immediate or imminent. This means that you must believe that death or serious physical harm could occur within a short time, for example before OSHA could investigate the problem.
- If an OSHA inspector believes that an imminent danger exists, the inspector must inform affected employees and the employer that he is recommending that OSHA take steps to stop the imminent danger.
- OSHA has the right to ask a federal court to order the employer to eliminate the imminent danger
Can I refuse to do the work requested?
When you believe working conditions are unsafe or unhealthful, you should call your employer’s attention to the problem. If your employer does not correct the hazard or disagrees with you about the extent of the hazard, you also may file a complaint with OSHA. Refusing to do a job because of potentially unsafe workplace conditions is not ordinarily an employee right under the OSH Act. (Your union contract or state law may, however, give you this right, but OSHA cannot enforce it.) Refusing to work may result in disciplinary action by the employer. However, employees do have the right to refuse to do a job if they believe in good faith that they are exposed to an imminent danger. “Good faith” means that even if an imminent danger is not found to exist, the worker had reasonable grounds to believe that it did exist. But, as a general rule, you do not have the right to walk off the job because of unsafe conditions. If you do and your employer fires or disciplines you, OSHA may not be able to protect you. So, stay on the job until the problem can be resolved. Your right to refuse to do a task is protected if all of the following conditions are met:
- Where possible, you have asked the employer to eliminate the danger, and the employer failed to do so
- You refused to work in “good faith.” This means that you must genuinely believe that an imminent danger exists. Your refusal cannot be a disguised attempt to harass your employer or disrupt business
- A reasonable person would agree that there is a real danger of death or serious injury
- There isn’t enough time, due to the urgency of the hazard, to get it corrected through regular enforcement channels, such as requesting an OSHA inspection.
When all of these conditions are met, you take the following steps:
- Ask your employer to correct the hazard
- Ask your employer for other work
- Tell your employer that you won’t perform the work unless and until the hazard is corrected
- Remain at the worksite until ordered to leave by your employer
If your employer discriminates against you for refusing to perform the dangerous work, contact OSHA immediately.
Can I get in trouble for this?
The OSH Act and other laws protect workers who complain to their employer, union, OSHA or other government agencies about unsafe or unhealthful conditions in the workplace or environmental problems. You cannot be transferred, denied a raise, have your hours reduced, be fired, or punished in any other way because you have exercised any right afforded to you under the OSH Act. Help is available from OSHA for whistleblowers.
What other rights do I have?
Other federal agencies protect workers’ rights also. Visit the websites at the National Labor Relations Board, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Department of Labor, or the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission to learn more about other protections for workers.