What to know about OSHA and workplace safety

While a worker can suffer an on-the-job injury at almost any moment, accidents frequently happen in places for workplace safety is not a top priority. Workers who are being subjected to unsafe working environments might have several questions about what they can do to improve conditions for everyone present at the site.

Many of these workers decide to file complaints with OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. This article discusses OSHA's "General Duty Clause," as well as what happens when a worker files a complaint with the agency. We also provide you with additional information regarding what to do in the event that you are injured in a workplace accident.

What is the OSHA General Duty Clause?

Employers in New York and throughout the rest of the country are required to provide their employees with an environment that is safe for their employees to work in. Basically, this means that employers must take the appropriate steps to help limit serious accidents from occurring.

While this seems easy enough, there are many employers who do not do what they are required to do in workplaces throughout New York. Workers are constantly being put in positions where they may suffer a serious injury in an accident that could be easily prevented.

Violations of the General Duty Clause

If employers fail to maintain a safe place for their employees to work, OSHA may issue a 5(a) (1) citation, states the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. For example, an employer may be cited under this clause if he or she:

  • Requires employees to continually lift heavy items above shoulder height
  • Runs a location with a conveyor belt that lacks functioning emergency stop devices
  • Requires employees to stand for long periods of time without support
  • Does not provide a way for employees to contact emergency medical assistance when they perform duties alone
  • Improperly stores highly reactive chemicals
  • Has employees use a forklift truck at elevated heights without adequate fall protection

However, certain factors must be present for OSHA to issue one of these citations. The NCOSH states that the hazard must actually exist, be recognizable, be likely to cause serious injuries or death and be correctable.

The application of the General Duty Clause has had mixed success throughout the years, because someone needs to take action before things really start happening. And, because the rules and regulations that apply vary from industry to industry, some workers may have no idea what employers must do to keep a workplace safe.

So what happens when a worker feels that something is not quite right at their workplace? When they file a complaint with OSHA, what does the agency do to fix that problem and prevent accidents from happening? And what happens when the agency doesn't act soon enough and a worker suffers a serious injury?

Filing a complaint with OSHA

There are a number of methods available to move forward with an official complaint. OSHA's website provides online, mailing or telephone options. The complaints are not only taken seriously but also kept confidential. In some cases, the complaint will result in an OSHA investigation.

What happens if the complaint leads to an investigation?

Although the details will vary with each individual situation, the basics can best be explained through the story of a New York contractor that was the subject of an investigation after the agency received a complaint. During the investigation, it became clear that the site was in violation of a number of health and safety laws.

The case involved construction on a new high school. Part of the project required work in a 10-foot deep excavation site. Workers at the site were not adequately protected and faced the risk of having thousands of pounds of soil collapse upon them at any time. Employers are required to follow federal trenching standards for work in any trench that is over five feet in depth. The standards were not met at this site.

The company was cited for a number of violations, including exposing employees to fall and explosion hazards, neglecting to train employees on the hazardous conditions present at the work site and failing to have mechanical retrieval equipment present and prepared for use in the case of an emergency.

These investigations are focused on making employers meet current regulations regarding workplace safety. The actions that employers need to take to correct these deficiencies may be minor, or they may result in more serious sanctions being placed on the company.

OSHA violations and workers' compensation claims

Unfortunately, not all workplace hazards are caught before the danger leads to a devastating accident. If this does happen, OSHA requires certain protocol be followed. If the injury was fatal, the federal agency must be contacted within eight hours. If the injury resulted in the hospitalization of the injured worker or an amputation, the agency must be notified within 24 hours.

Injured workers may find comfort in the fact that OSHA will review the details of the accident and hold their employer accountable for failing to keep their employees safe, but employees who are injured on-the-job can also seek benefits through a workers' compensation claim.

Ideally, the application for benefits will be approved and benefits will be paid out to the injured worker promptly. In actuality, this is not always the case. It is not uncommon for the insurance company behind these benefits to downplay the severity of the injury or outright deny the claim for benefits.

Although OSHA and workers' compensation are two distinct systems — an OSHA violation does not automatically result in a workers' compensation payment — the presence of an OSHA violation can be used to support a workers' compensation claim when a worker is injured while on the job. In this situation, the presence of multiple OSHA violations will likely support any workers' compensation claims filed by the workers who were injured in the accident.

The benefits available when injured at work

According to the New York State Workers' Compensation Board, injured workers may be awarded Social Security, medical, supplemental and cash benefits after a workplace accident occurs. Additionally, the family members of employees who are killed as a result of a workplace accident may be eligible to obtain death benefits on behalf of their deceased family member.

However, some injured employees in New York may find that their employer is not willing to cooperate with them when they attempt to file a claim for these benefits. If you were injured at work, consult with an attorney to find out what you can do to protect your rights to proper compensation.