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OSHA: Employee Workplace Rights and Responsibilities

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (hereafter called the Act) created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) within the Department of Labor and encouraged employers and employees to reduce workplace hazards and to implement safety and health programs.

In doing so, employees were given many rights and responsibilities. They have the right to:

* review copies of appropriate standards, rules, regulations, and requirements that the employer should have available at the workplace.

* request information from the employer on safety and health hazards in the workplace, precautions that may be taken, and procedures to be followed if an employee is involved in an accident or is exposed to toxic substances.

* have access to relevant employee exposure and medical records.

* request the OSHA area director to conduct an inspection if they believe hazardous conditions or violations of standards exist in the workplace.

* have an authorized employee representative accompany the OSHA compliance officer during the inspection tour.

* respond to questions from the OSHA compliance officer, particularly if there is no authorized employee representative accompanying the compliance officer on the inspection "walkaround."

* observe any monitoring or measuring of hazardous materials and see the resulting records, as specified under the Act, and as required by OSHA standards.

* have an authorized representative, or themselves, review the Log and Summary of Occupational Injuries (OSHA No. 200) at a reasonable time and in a reasonable manner.

* object to the abatement period set by OSHA for correcting any violation in the citation issued to the employer by writing to the OSHA area director within 15 working days from the date the employer receives the citation.

o submit a written request to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) for information on whether any substance in the workplace has potentially toxic effects in the concentration being used, and have names withheld from the employer, if that is requested.

* be notified by the employer if the employer applies for a variance from an OSHA standard, and testify at a variance hearing, and appeal the final decision.

* have names withheld form employer, upon request to OSHA, if a written and signed complaint is filed.

* be advised of OSHA actions regarding a complaint and request an informal review of any decision not to inspect or to issue a citation.

* file discrimination complaint under Section 11(c) of the Act if punished for exercising the above rights or for refusing to work when faced with an imminent danger of death or serious injury and there is insufficient time or OSHA to inspect; or fine a Section 405 reprisal complaint (under the Surface Transportation Assistance Act [STAA]).

Before OSHA issues, amends or deletes regulations, the agency publishes them in the Federal Register so that interested persons or groups may comment.

The employer has a legal obligation to inform employees of OSHA safety and health standards which may apply to their workplace. Upon request, the employer must make available copies of those standards and the OSHA law itself. If more information is needed about workplace hazards than the employer can supply, it can be obtained from the nearest OSHA area office.

Under the Act, employers have a general duty to provide work and a workplace free from recognized hazards. Citations may be issued by OSHA when violations of standards are found, and for violations of the general duty clause, even if no OSHA standard applies to the particular hazard.

The employer also must display in a prominent place the official OSHA poster which describes rights and responsibilities under OSHA's law.

Employee Responsibilities

Although OSHA does not cite employees for violations of their responsibilities, employees "shall comply with all occupational safety and health standards and all rules, regulations, and orders issued under the Act" that apply to them. Employee responsibilities and rights in states with their own occupational safety and health programs are generally the same as for workers in Federal OSHA states: An employee should:

* Read the OSHA poster at the jobsite.

* Comply with all applicable OSHA standards.

* Follow all employer safety and health rules and regulations, and wear or use prescribed protective equipment while working.

* Report hazardous conditions to the supervisor.

* Report any job-related injury or illness to the employer, and seek treatment promptly.

* Cooperate with the OSHA compliance officer conducting an inspection if he or she inquires about safety and health conditions in the workplace.

* Exercise right under the Act in a responsible manner.

Right to Know

Employers in manufacturing industries must establish a written, comprehensive hazard communication program which includes provisions for container labeling, material safety data sheets, and an employee training program. The program must include a list of the hazardous chemicals in each work area, the means the employer uses to inform employees of the hazards of non-routine tasks (for example, the cleaning of reactor vessels), hazards associated with chemicals in unlabeled pipes, and the way the employer will inform contractors in manufacturing facilities of the hazards to which their employees may be exposed.

Access to Exposure and Medical Records

The existence, location, and availability of medical records and records of employees' exposure to toxic substances and harmful physical agents must be provided by the employer to affected employees upon their first entering into employment and at least annually thereafter. Whenever an employer plans to stop doing business and there is no successor employer to receive and maintain these records, the employer must notify employees of their right of access to records at least three months before the employer ceases to do business.

When OSHA standards require the employer to measure exposure to harmful substances, the employee (or representative) has the right to observe the testing and to examine the records of the results. If the exposure levels are above the limit set by the standard, the employer must tell employees what will be done to bring the exposure down.

OSHA Inspections

OSHA encourages employers and employees to work together to remove hazards. Employees should discuss safety and health problems with the employer, other workers, and union representatives (if there is a union). As a last resort, if a hazard cannot be corrected, an employee should contact the nearest OSHA area office. If necessary, the OSHA area director can order an inspection if the employee is willing to submit a formal complaint.

Discrimination for Using Rights

Although there is nothing in the OSHA law which gives an employee the right to refuse to perform an unsafe or unhealthful job assignment, OSHA's regulations, which have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, provide that an employee may refuse to work when faced with an imminent danger of death or serious injury.

The conditions necessary to justify a work refusal are very stringent, however, and a work refusal should be an action taken only as a last resort. If time permits, the unhealthful or unsafe condition should be reported to OSHA or other appropriate regulatory agency. Thus, employees have a right to seek safety and health on the job without fear of punishment. That right is spelled out in Section 11(c) of the Act.

The law says the employer cannot punish or discriminate against employees for exercising such right as complaining to the employer, union, OSHA, or any other government agency about job safety and health hazards; or for participation in OSHA inspections, conferences, hearings, or other OSHA-related activities.

Workers believing they have been punished for exercising safety and health rights must contact the nearest OSHA office within 30 days of the time they learn of the alleged discrimination. A representative of the employee's choosing can file the 11(c) complaint for the worker. Following a complaint, OSHA will contact the complainant and conduct an in-depth interview to determine whether an investigation is necessary.

This is one of a series of fact sheets highlighting U.S. Department of Labor programs. It is intended as a general description only and does not carry the force of legal opinion.

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