OSHA – Workplace Safety and Health Requirements
The nation’s main workplace safety and health law is the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which requires all private-sector employers to furnish a safe workplace, free of recognized hazards, to their employees, and requires employers and employees to comply with occupational safety and health standards adopted by the U.S. Department of Labor’s OSHA division (for the main duty clause of OSHA, see 29 U.S.C. 654).
OSHA does not apply to the federal government, the Texas state government or any of its agencies, or a political subdivision of Texas, such as a city or county government (see 29 U.S.C. 652(5); also “All About OSHA”, https://www.osha.gov/Publications/all_about_OSHA.pdf (PDF)).
Compliance with OSHA standards can not only help prevent needless workplace tragedies from accidents, but also help minimize the number of injury-related employee absences, keep workers’ compensation and other insurance costs to a minimum, and promote higher productivity from employees who can feel secure that the company is looking out for their safety and can thus concentrate on doing their jobs well.
A myth about OSHA is that the regulations are too complex to understand. Although the regulations are numerous and occasionally very comprehensive and detailed, almost all of them stem directly from common sense, best practices, and what experienced and prudent employees would do in their jobs anyway. For example, the regulations require such things as wearing seat belts when driving vehicles or operating machines with seats, ensuring that safe scaffolding and fall protection are in place for employees working at heights, wearing goggles or other face protection during welding or while working with abrasive materials, using cave-in protection when working in trenches, using guards on any tools with moving blades, using guards and other protective barriers on machines with large moving parts, providing kill switches on machinery for immediate shut-off if anything goes wrong, providing adequate ventilation for workers in enclosed areas where fumes are present, protecting health-care workers from accidental pricks from needles and other sharp medical instruments, avoiding sparks near flammable materials, and so on.
Although employers have the right to take appropriate corrective action toward employees who violate known safety rules, OSHA protects an employee’s right to report workplace safety concerns and violations of safety rules, and an employer that retaliates in any way against an employee who reports safety-related problems or participates in an OSHA-related investigation is subject to enforcement action in court by DOL (see 29 U.S.C. 660(c)(1, 2)).
Non-willful violations can result in civil penalties, which become more substantial for serious or repeated violations, and willful violations can result in both civil penalties and imprisonment for those responsible, depending upon the severity of the violation.
Violations of OSHA are not necessarily enough to prove an employer’s negligence as a matter of law in a civil lawsuit arising from a workplace injury, but can be used as evidence of negligence. Similarly, evidence of compliance with OSHA may not be sufficient to avoid liability in such a lawsuit, and compliance is certainly not enough to prevent a workers’ compensation claim from being filed, since workers’ compensation claims are generally handled without regard to issues of fault. See 29 U.S.C. 653(b)(4).
Child labor presents special safety issues under both Texas and federal laws. Regardless of how safe a workplace may be for adult employees or how much in compliance with OSHA an employer may be, children may not perform hazardous duties or work during restricted times. A complete list of prohibited duties and restrictions on hours of work for children under both Texas and federal laws appears on the Texas child labor law poster available for free downloading at http://www.twc.state.tx.us/ui/lablaw/llcl70.pdf (PDF). For more information on child labor laws, see the topic Child Labor in this outline in part II of this book.
OSHA’s official PowerPoint and video presentations for workplace safety education in various industries are excellent training tools for employers and employees alike and are available for free downloading at http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/multimedia.html. The department’s self-guided study and training tools are available on the OSHA eTools page. In addition, OSHA offers free compliance training and consultation to small and medium-size businesses – see OSHA’s On-site Consultation page for details.
The state agency in Texas with the greatest authority in the area of workplace safety is the Texas Department of Insurance, the Division of Workers’ Compensation of which has enforcement responsibility for the Texas Workers’ Compensation Act (for the general provisions of that law, see Chapter 401 of the Texas Labor Code). The main workplace safety resource information for Texas is on the TDI website at http://www.tdi.state.tx.us/wc/safety/index.html. The Workers’ Compensation Division’s OSHCON Department provides workplace safety and health consultations to Texas employers, including free OSHA compliance assistance – their website is at http://www.txoshcon.com.
As with many federal laws, OSHA does not preempt state laws that provide a greater degree of protection or benefit for employees – thus, in Texas the following laws are examples of state-level workplace safety and health laws (this is not a complete list of state laws affecting workplace safety and health – many occupations regulated under the Occupations Code have safety-related laws in the chapters for those occupations):
Texas Health and Safety Code, Section 81.042 – duty of some employers to report certain communicable diseases (PDF) to local health authorities or to the Texas Department of State Health Services at 1-800-705-8868