In 1970, Congress enacted the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) to provide working men and women with safe and healthful working conditions. The Act established the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and authorized it to issue and enforce workplace safety and health standards. The OSH Act also created the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to research the major hazards in the workplace and to devise ways of preventing them.
The OSH Act imposes a general duty on employers to provide their employees with a workplace free from known hazards that will result or will likely result in death or serious physical harm. In addition, OSHA standards and regulations specifically address certain workplace hazards and all employers must comply with these health and safety rules as well. Over 100 million workplaces in the United States are subject to OSHA authority and inspection for compliance with its standards.
By law, OSHA may regulate most nongovernmental workplaces with employees. States may operate their own state workplace safety and health programs under plans approved by the U.S. Department of Labor, and in states that have approved plans in place, most private sector workers, as well as state and local government workers in the state, are subject to the program's oversight. OSHA regulations also permit states without approved plans to develop workplace health and safety plans that cover only public sector (government) workers. In these states, OSHA retains authority to regulate and inspect private sector workplaces.
The most common OSHA violation involves scaffolding. OSHA mandates that employers must protect their employees from falls and falling objects while they work on or near scaffolding of 10 feet or higher. Other common OSHA violations include failing to develop and maintain a hazard communications program, failing to protect employees from falling, and failing to establish and maintain a respiratory protection program.
Employers violate hazard communication standards when they fail to develop and maintain written programs on workplace hazards. The OSHA "Right to Know" standard requires an employer to develop a program that lists hazardous chemicals present on-site, labels chemical containers in the workplace and containers of chemicals being shipped to other workplaces, distributes material safety data sheets to employees, and establishes employee training programs to educate employees about the hazards of chemicals they work with as well as protective measures.
Employers violate the respiratory protection standard when they do not provide employees with respirators or if they do not provide a medical evaluation to determine whether employees are medically able to use a respirator.
Toxic substances are present in many workplaces. The more obvious locations include chemical plants, manufacturing operations, farms and industrial sites. However, even office buildings may contain toxic substances. Because exposure to toxics, such as arsenic, asbestos, benzene, chromium, lead, mercury, pesticides, phthalates, and toluene, may cause bodily harm, illness or death, all employers and employees should follow applicable safety measures.
OSHA primarily enforces its standards by conducting surprise workplace inspections and issuing citations, which may result in fines, for an employer's failure to comply with standards. If an OSHA compliance officer finds a workplace where workers are in immediate danger during an inspection, the officer will ask the employer to end the hazardous condition and prevent workers from being exposed to it. If the employer fails to do so voluntarily, an injunction may be sought in federal court to shut down work at the site until the employer fixes the dangerous problem.
An employer must inform OSHA within eight hours of a workplace accident that results in the death or hospitalization of three or more employees. OSHA will then investigate whether the accident happened because the employer had violated OSHA standards. When a willful violation of an OSHA standard results in the death of a worker, OSHA may subject an employer to criminal penalties. The maximum penalty is a misdemeanor with a maximum of six months in jail, though some local prosecutors file manslaughter or other felony charges when an employer's criminal negligence causes a worker's death.
When the carelessness or recklessness of another person or company exposes workers to a toxic substance and injures them, the workers may be able to recover economic compensation or other remedies in a toxic tort lawsuit. An injured worker who files a toxic tort lawsuit after being harmed by toxic chemicals must prove it was more likely than not that the injury was caused by the negligence of, or a product manufactured by, another.