Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last reviewed June 20, 2016
Employees have the right to a workplace that is reasonably free of safety and health hazards. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets and enforces national standards to ensure the safety and health of America's workers. If employees are injured on the job, employers are generally responsible for the medical costs associated with the injury, and may have to pay fines if the workplace did not comply with OSHA standards. FindLaw's Workplace Safety section covers OSHA regulations and enforcement, as well as workplace exposure to health or safety hazards.
OSHA at a Glance
Workplace health and safety regulations are established and enforced at the federal level through OSHA, which was created with the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act of 1970. The agency sets federal standards; provides training information for both employers and employees; and investigates safety and health complaints. Employees have various rights under OSHA, such as:
- The right to review documentation on illnesses and injuries related to a given workplace
- The right to file a confidential complaint with OSHA, thus initiating a workplace inspection
- The right to not face retaliation for reporting OSHA-related complaints
Employers are generally required to maintain a safe workplace, free from any serious health or safety risks. In workplaces that are inherently dangerous, such as fertilizer plants or oil refineries, OSHA requires employers to provide the necessary information and safety precautions for its employees. This can take the form of protective goggles, special training, or whatever is needed to minimize known risks.
OSHA also requires employers to keep detailed records of work-related injuries and illnesses, while prominently posting a list of safety citations and an OSHA poster.
OSHA-Approved State Plans
Roughly half of all states run their own OSHA-approved state plans with partial funding from the federal government. Certain workers who are not covered by state plans (including maritime workers) may be covered by federal OSHA regulations. Most states with their own occupational safety and health plans cover both private and public sector employees, but four states (including Illinois and New York) extend state occupational safety and health protections to public sector employees only.
Puerto Rico and 21 states -- including California, Michigan, North Carolina, and Washington -- have OSHA-approved state plans.
Workplace Exposure to Health and Safety Hazards
In most cases, your employers will clearly indicate any health and safety hazards in the workplace, if only to cover their own liability. But if you work in an environment with known toxins or hazardous chemicals, you can learn more by asking to see the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), which are required in such workplaces. Additionally, most hazardous materials will come with prominently displayed warning labels.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) suggests a number of steps to eliminate or at least minimize contact with hazardous substances, including the use of ventilation or protective clothing.
Tobacco Smoke in the Workplace
In the absence of federal regulation of tobacco smoke in the workplace, which presents a health risk for non-smokers as well, most states have regulations in place. A number of states, including California, ban smoking in the workplace and in enclosed public spaces. In these states, smoking is typically prohibited in bars and restaurants as well (to protect the employees at these establishments). Certain exemptions may apply, including private offices where only smokers work.
However, employees who have serious health issues that are impacted by tobacco smoke are protected by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Click on a link below to learn more about workplace safety and health laws.
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