How to Build and Maintain a Safe Workplace (Part I)

OSHA Workplace Safety Laws
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All employers with one or more employees are obligated to comply with the standards, rules, and regulations issued under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA). Have you ever felt unsure of what specifically you’re responsible for when it comes to making sure your company is compliant?

With so many federal, state, and local employment laws, it’s hard to become and stay well-versed on all of them, and because safety can seem like common sense, it sometimes falls through the cracks.

Learning what your obligations are is the first step to reducing risk of injury for the employees you worked so hard to hire, train, and develop. It will also help you avoid financial penalties for not complying with the law.

Read on, and I’ll walk you through some of the key obligations under the federal safety and health law.

OSHA Standards and General Duty Clause

OSHA has many specific standards for safety, such as requiring handrails on stairs and ensuring hearing protection at a certain decibel. Employers must follow these standards.

But even if an employer doesn’t have a work environment that contains any of the hazards specifically cited in the standards, it is still obligated to comply with the General Duty Clause.

It states that employers have the obligation to provide a work environment “free from recognizable hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees.”

This means that employers must identify hazards and act to eliminate them, even if there is no specific OSHA standard requiring it.

For example, although there is no requirement for employers to keep the workplace within a certain temperature range, employers are still obligated to reduce the risk to their employees of heat-related illnesses. In hot environments, things like air conditioning and ventilation, frequent breaks, regular fluid intake, are all steps that an employer could take to meet their General Duty requirements.

Policies and Procedures BinderEmployee Tools and Training

The law requires that employers arm employees with the tools and information they need to remain safe at work. That includes, but is not limited to:

  • Ensuring they have and use safe—and properly maintained–tools and equipment
  • Providing color codes, posters, labels, or signs to warn employees of potential hazards
  • Establishing and regularly updating operating procedures regarding safety and health issues and communicating them to employees
  • Training employees on safety in a language and vocabulary workers can understand

Hazardous Chemicals

Employers who have hazardous chemicals in the workplace must develop and implement a written hazard communication program and train employees on the hazards and proper precautions. In addition, copies of safety data sheets disclosing the chemicals, their related hazards, and necessary protection must be readily available to staff.Employee following workplace safety procudures

This requirement isn’t limited to companies that produce chemicals and those that utilize chemicals in manufacturing processes. Cleaning products and some office supplies contain chemicals, so be sure you do a thorough review of the workplace to uncover any chemicals onsite and determine if their use can be eliminated to avoid both the hazard and the compliance requirements.

Postings, Recordkeeping, and Reporting

OSHA has many requirements for notifications, documentation, and reporting. It requires that all employers do the following:

  • Display the poster informing employees of their rights and responsibilities
  • Keep records of work-related injuries and illnesses. However, employers with 10 or fewer employees and those in certain low-hazard industries are exempt from this requirement. Even if you determine you are exempt from the legal obligation, it is a good practice to track injuries to identify patterns of hazards and eliminate them
  • Provide employees or their authorized representatives access to employee medical records and exposure records
  • Those employers required to log work-related injuries and illnesses must post the summary document on February 1st of each year for three months
  • Post OSHA citations at or near the work area involved until the violation is corrected or for three working days, whichever is longer
  • Post abatement verification documents or tags
  • Report to OSHA all work-related fatalities within 8 hours and all work-related inpatient hospitalizations, amputations, and losses of an eye within 24 hours

The above is an overview of what the federal law requires. Some state laws have additional requirements or standards, so be sure to check the law of the states in which you have employees.

How to Ensure Compliance

Employers must protect employees from recognized serious hazards. This includes physical, chemical, biological, ergonomic, and other dangers.

The easiest way to manage these duties is through a safety and health program. OSHA strongly encourages this, although it isn’t required.

In part 2 of this article, we’ll cover what a safety and health program could contain.

What are some of the things your organization does to meet its legal safety and health obligation?

You can leave your answer in a comment below.

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