In many industries, workers regularly face the risk of suffering workplace injury, illness, and even death. While many injuries are minor, unsafe working conditions can lead to devastating losses. Earlier this month, a deadly explosion at a West Virginia coal mine killed twenty-nine workers. While the cause of the blast is under investigation, some suspect that the owner of the mine, Massey Energy Company, failed to adequately ventilate the mine, allowing noxious and highly combustible methane gas to build to dangerous levels. Although coal mines are regulated by a special agency, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (“MSHA”), most of us are already familiar with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”).
OSHA oversees health and safety conditions in most workplaces. The agency compiles data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Department of Labor, and OSHA’s area offices to report workplace injury, illness, and fatality statistics both weekly and annually with categories based on industry and geographic region. Unfortunately, these figures can be quite high. Although not all incidents are preventable, it is important that workers recognize hazardous conditions in the workplace and demand safety to avoid sustaining any preventable injuries in the course of their work.
According to the fall 2009 Regulatory Plan, “OSHA’s regulatory program is designed to help workers and employers identify hazards in the workplace, prevent the occurrence of injuries and adverse health effects, and communicate with the regulated community regarding hazards and how to effectively control them.” Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, OSHA requires employers to provide a workplace free from serious recognized hazards. Workers have the following rights under the Act:
1. Get training from their employers on chemicals and other safety and health hazards they are exposed to during work and how to protect themselves from harm;
2. Request information from their employer about OSHA standards, worker injuries and illnesses, job hazards, and workers’ rights;
3. Request action from their employer to correct hazards or violations;
4. File a complaint with OSHA if there are violations of OSHA standards or serious workplace hazards;
5. Be involved in OSHA’s inspection of their workplace;
6. Find out the results of an OSHA inspection;
7. Get involved in any meetings or hearing to discuss their employer’s objections to OSHA’s citations or to abatement deadlines;
8. File a formal appeal of deadlines for correction of hazards;
9. File a discrimination complaint;
10. Request a research investigation on possible workplace health hazards; and
11. Provide comments and testimony to OSHA during rulemaking on new standards.
Although many employers will correct known violations promptly, you need to take active steps to ensure your own safety. If there are hazardous conditions, make sure your employer knows about them. If your employer is aware of the conditions and fails to correct them, bring the violations to the attention of OSHA or another regulatory body that can enforce health and safety standards at your workplace. You can file complaints to OSHA in person, by telephone, by fax, by mail, or electronically through the United States Department of Labor online complaint form.