Do you know your rights as an employee? Do you know how to exercise those rights? Does your spouse or child have a job that you feel puts them in unnecessary danger? Many employers continue to put their workers unnecessarily in danger’s way. So, it is to those workers that this article is written for.
All jobs carry a certain amount of risk, and I’m good with that. Taking risks is how we learn from failure and grow, as individuals, companies, and society. During my lifetime, I grew up farming and have worked as a roofer, machinist, firefighter, and dogsled guide, among other hazardous occupations and I have great respect for people who perform jobs with higher risks. Our world needs the roughnecks who work the oil rigs where one mistake can be catastrophic and the police officers who have zero idea what risk is around the next corner but face it anyway. Our society would grind to a cold halt without the people who take immense risk and manage it with intense skill and dedication.
It is the moral and legal obligation of an employer to put safeguards in place and not unnecessarily put those employees and the public at risk. Just because an industry has inherent risks does not mean the worker should show up for work at their own peril, though. It is important for you as a worker to understand that there are acceptable and unacceptable risks in the workplace, and you should not have to take unacceptable risks to pay your bills. Unacceptable risk is going to be different for an office worker, roofer, and firefighter, but in each case, there are risks and requirements.
I’m going to skip over the safety requirements that we’ve all seen, like posters and OSHA 300 logs, and jump straight to the things that are potentially the most impactful for you. There are many other requirements, but these are what I see as the most prevalent.
You have the right to know what material hazards you work around and what precautions you should be taking. Employers must provide a program, safety data sheets (SDS) for all chemicals used on the worksite (other than commonly used household chemicals used in quantities and purposes like you’d use at home, like a bottle of Windex in the bathroom for cleaning the mirror), GHS labels on containers with hazards, and training for workers to inform them about the program, how to read GHS and SDS, how to understand the hazards, and how to properly handle those chemicals.
How does this apply to you? Maybe you have had chronic headaches or a skin rash for the past several months. You have looked at your home cleaners, lifestyle, and other possible causes. Your doctor has asked question after question, but nothing seems to cause it. You remember something smelling a little different at work a few months back, but now barely notice it, so start asking co-workers and find out that there is a new solvent being used on the plant floor with a unique odor. At that point, I’d want to see what the SDS says about that chemical. Your employer must have an SDS on hand and allow you to access it. You should be free to take a copy of the SDS to your healthcare provider to figure out if that chemical’s exposure is consistent with your symptoms.
Your employer should be following the safety practices from the SDS, within reason. The PEL is the permissible exposure limit, how much workers are allowed to be exposed to by law. For example, if the PEL of a chemical is 200 PPM, that means that they must put practices in place to keep the exposure below that amount. Employers must do air sampling if there is potential for overexposure to ensure those practices are sufficient. Many employers play the “see no evil, know no evil” card and simply don’t do sampling so they don’t know if they are under the PEL. That is not an excuse. As a worker, you have the right to ask for the monitoring or sampling results. If an employer has no sampling history, no SDS, and no engineering practices in place, they have no grounds to tell you that your exposure is not work related.
If you are handling chemicals, the employer is required to give you the proper PPE and other controls, as well as train you how to properly handle the chemical and follow the procedures. You should never just be handed a hazardous chemical and no instructions.
This one applies to any worker who works at heights greater than 4’ (general industry) or 6’ (construction). If you work near ledges, on roofs, in boom-lifts, or near other tasks from height, your employer must supply fall protection and training. That could include railing, painted lines away from the ledge that you do not cross, nets, or personal fall protection, among other methods.
Falls are one of the leading killers of workers. As I mentioned earlier, I used to be a roofer (before my safety career, so I had no knowledge of fall protection, nor did I ever use it) and am comfortable on roofs, so I don’t get too worked up if I see someone on low roofs with lower pitches without fall protection, but the risks that many companies ask their employees to take is absolutely unacceptable. Most roofers who don’t use fall protection have stories of falling from roofs. It’s not a question of if they will fall, but when and whether they will be injured, killed, paralyzed, or walk away with musculoskeletal injuries that show up later in life.
Nobody should be working with electricity without proper training. I was that kid who grew up working on electric motors and circuits, took every shop class, and just wandered into the workforce and put in charge of fixing electrical equipment without training. I had enough experience to avoid any big mishaps but had no training on 70E or understanding things like arc blast until I finally had a job that gave me the proper training. Far too many employers just assume their employees know what they’re doing without training them. Accidents with electricity can kill you quickly and painfully.
Employers must train workers before they ever work with hazards and PPE, respirators, forklifts and other equipment, remove guarding and locking out equipment, etc. If you are asked to do a task with hazards and have not been trained, ask your supervisor to be properly trained.
If you want to know more about a workplace hazard, don’t feel your task can be done safely, or have any concerns about your own safety while performing a task, your first action should be to step back and ask your supervisor. Here is the key, though. It is your life, your safety, your family that will have to take care of you if you’re paralyzed or incapacitated or feel your loss if you’re killed. If you are not satisfied with your supervisor’s answer, it is your obligation to continue advocating for yourself and your co-workers.
If your supervisor does not respond appropriately, your next step should be talking to your manager. OSHA should only be called if your employer knows and ignores a hazard, not before. However, if your employer refuses to take proper actions, OSHA should be your next contact. Your employer is absolutely forbidden from taking retaliatory action against you if you make your complaint in good faith. That means you cannot refuse to do a job just because you don’t want to work. I have had employees written up for using safety as an “excuse”, but those are extreme cases. If someone tried to use our safety program to get out of work rather than ensure work was safe, I had little tolerance for them because they tried to take advantage of safety like the boy who cried wolf, so don’t be that person. If you call OSHA in good faith, and your employer fires or retaliates against you, that is a serious complaint in OSHA’s eyes and should be reported promptly. OSHA is not lenient on businesses who retaliate against workers.
I believe in leading from the front (management should lead with safety and by example, not have to be dragged in by regulations and workers threatening to quit). As a business owner myself who had watched my father build a manufacturing business, I understand that business owners and managers are hit from all directions with taxes, regulations, business problems, economic changes, cashflow challenges, and more, so our goal is to help them see the business BENEFITS from safety rather than be one more nagging “safety-cop” who threatens them with what OSHA can do to gain their business. There are more compelling reasons that will drive better engagement than “do it or you might get caught and fined”. However, when employers do not uphold their responsibility, it’s up to the worker to decide if they want to improve the culture and influence from within, find another job, file a complaint with OSHA, or just ignore it. Ignoring it can kill you or your co-workers, so you have to decide if you want to live with that (or die by it).
If you want to know more, have concerns about your workplace, or want to introduce me to your employer to advocate for you, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us! This article only scratches the surface of safety requirements, so there is much more to safety. This article is not legal advice, but guidance as to why and how you should advocate for your safety worksite.