On December 30th, 1971, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was established. The laws related to that agency have since come to dominate our workplaces. With the 40th anniversary of that date rapidly approaching, it seems fitting to discuss workplace hazards today.
Companies are required to provide safety information on-site about any hazards (obvious or not) found in the workplace. They are also supposed to provide safety gear (such as goggles or earplugs) and include safety devices on equipment (such as guards on moving parts). In addition, there are Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs) to various chemicals found in the workplace which are defined in Hazard Communication (HazCom) books. Industrial sectors such as the petroleum industry are regulated under Process Safety Management (PSM). Buddy systems are required in many more dangerous industries. Finally, many states have partnered with OSHA to require multiple hours of on-site OSHA safety training.
Most workplace safety regulations that OSHA deals with are common sense, but not all. Some regulations that may be relatively obscure to employees concern certain procedures for using heavy equipment. You are required to post certain safety information throughout your workplace—information that is specified in OSHA regulations. A lot of the “common sense” guidelines must also be posted as well. A complete list of OSHA regulations may be found at this site. An HR firm like can help you wade through this legalese to find the regulations that most affect your business. They can also help you prepare to pass an OSHA inspection.
OSHA inspections are often random. If OSHA calls to inspect, it may just mean that you got lucky (or unlucky, depending on how you look at it). Despite the negative stigma associated with inspections, they can actually be a good thing. A clean inspection will help to protect you from litigation in future accidents. It will also indicate that you are well prepared for a workplace emergency, since OSHA regulations include such details as fire extinguishers and on-site medical kits.
When working with an HR firm like , you can ask us to give you an informal inspection. We will give you just as thorough an inspection as OSHA would, helping you prepare for a real inspection should one come up. Our inspection would be valuable in helping to prevent accidents and defend against litigation. If particular employees display unsafe behavior, we can help you deal with that problem, whereas an OSHA inspector would consider you fully responsible for the actions of that employee.
Litigation over Safety Issues
Like many other laws in the workplace, the employer has the burden of proof in a workplace safety suit. This means that if an employee gets injured and sues you, you are considered guilty until proven innocent! You must be able to demonstrate that the employee did not act in a reasonable manner and/or that you provided sufficient information and training to prevent the accident from occurring. It is difficult for an employer to identify all possible hazards in a workplace, particularly in a more dangerous industry where hazards become everyday facts of life.
If an employee gets injured on the job, you should immediately get HR specialists involved. Prompt issuance of workers’ compensation can often satisfy your employee enough that they won’t consider litigation. However, you should still assume that they will sue you and immediately begin investigating the accident. If you find that safety information was lacking, you must take the necessary steps to correct the omission right away. Also, if a supervisor is linked to the accident in any way, you may need to take disciplinary action against that supervisor to protect your back.
In some industries, especially in the computer technology sector, alternative work arrangements have become commonplace. In 2000, new OSHA policies made employers responsible for at-home work environments. If your employee works from home off an old badly-wired computer and there is a fire, you would be considered responsible. The argument is that you should have given them a better computer and inspected the wiring in their home to prevent that fire. In addition, family members of your work-from-home employee could introduce elements into the workplace that are non-OSHA compliant that you would be responsible for. If their child leaves a skateboard under your employee’s desk, you could be considered responsible for a resulting injury. Also, many states have laws that would ban cigarettes where employees work from home—with the burden of enforcement placed on you!
One of the essential responsibilities of human resources is to ensure employee safety. The complexity of this task increases as more safety regulations are passed and more alternative work arrangements become commonplace. An experienced HR firm can help you to identify risks and take measures to mitigate those risks. An HR firm can also help you to prevent workplace violence, another concern that falls under OSHA. We will dedicate our next post to that topic, so stay tuned.