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The Occupational Health and Safety Act

In 1970, Congress enacted the Occupational Health and Safety Act, establishing laws to govern health and safety in the private sector, as well as the federal government. The act mandates that qualified employers maintain work environments that are free of specific hazards, including toxic chemicals, mechanical dangers, excessive heat or cold, dangerous noise levels, and certain unsanitary conditions. The act authorized also the creation of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), the federal agency tasked with establishing, monitoring and enforcing workplace safety regulations and procedures.

Employers Covered by OSHA

Under the act, an employer is identified as any “person engaged in a business affecting commerce who has employees, [excluding] the United States or any state or political subdivision of a state.” Specifically excluded are family farms, people who are self-employed and workplaces governed by federal laws (such as airlines or railroads). There are specific provisions applying coverage to all federal agencies, including the U.S. Post Office.

The Duty under the Occupational Health and Safety Act

The law imposes a general duty upon employers to:

  • Maintain conditions or adopt practices reasonably necessary and appropriate to protect workers on the job
  • Be familiar with and comply with all standards applicable to their establishments
  • Ensure that employees have and use personal protective equipment when required for safety and health

OSHA has set forth regulations identifying when it may take action against an employer under the general duty provisions of the act. There are four criteria that must be met:

  • There must have been a hazard present
  • The employer either knew or should have known of the hazard
  • The hazard is one likely to cause serious harm or death
  • The hazard must be correctable

Reporting Requirements under the Act

The Occupational Health and Safety Act establishes strict reporting requirements for covered employers:

A workplace fatality must be reported to OSHA within 8 hours of the time of death, and all fatal heart attacks in the workplace must also be reported
An accident hospitalizing at least three employees must be reported within 8 hours of the incident
Employers must promptly and reasonably notify employees of all known hazards, and must maintain records documenting known hazards

The Prohibition against Retaliatory Acts

An employer may not take any action construed as retaliatory against any employee who exercises rights under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. This includes termination, discrimination or other similar types of actions.

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