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A Guide to Workplace Safety Rules

By Joel Handelsman | June 29, 2012

Workplace safety is important to every business, even to those that have no employees. Any place of business should be free of hazards for your protection and the protection of your customers, vendors and anyone else who spends time in your workplace. Yet, despite the best efforts of many employers, thousands of Americans are killed each year in on-the-job accidents, and many more incur work-related disabilities or contract occupational illnesses.

Federal safety regulation. Your legal obligations to provide a safe work environment for your employees arise primarily from a federal law known as the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). All businesses have a duty to comply with some general safety and health rules. OSHA is administered by the Department of Labor.

State safety regulation. Although your safety obligations originate at the federal level, states have the right to develop their own federally approved state workplace safety plans. Standards under a state plan may differ from federal OSHA regulations, but must be at least as effective as the federal standards. If your business is in a state that has a state plan, you must comply with it. If your state doesn't have a state plan, you must comply with federal OSHA laws.

The following states have established their own state plans for workplace safety: Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming. You can get more information about your state's rules by contacting your state department of labor.

OSHA's requirements. If you have control over the actions of your employees, and you have the right to fire them, OSHA makes you responsible for providing a safe workplace. Your obligation to ensure workplace safety may also extend to non-employee workers such as temps or independent contractors. If you have control over workplace hazards, you're going to be the one held responsible if something unfortunate occurs.

Small business exemptions. Businesses with no more than 10 employees that provide personal or business services, many types of retailers, and eating and drinking establishments are exempt from OSHA-mandated injury and illness reporting. Small businesses in specified low hazard industries are exempt from programmed inspections. But all businesses, regardless of size or classification, must comply with OSHA's accident reporting rules.

General requirements. OSHA contains a "general duty clause" that requires every employer to provide every employee with a place of employment that is free from recognized hazards that cause or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm. This obligation is open-ended and, therefore, your potential liability under the Act is also open-ended. OSHA also addresses specific hazardous activities and conditions in four employment settings: general industry, construction, maritime and agriculture. In these settings, OSHA's published standards address general issues such as personal protective equipment, means of egress, fire protection and first aid. These standards also address highly specific activities, such as welding, electrical wiring, and concrete and masonry. Complying with these specific requirements, which address known hazards, is far easier than anticipating and correcting hazards that have yet to be officially identified.

Enforcement. You can be found to be in violation of the general duty clause if it's shown that workers were exposed to a foreseeable hazard likely to cause death or serious harm, and you had knowledge of the hazard, or should have had knowledge because the hazard had been recognized by you, your industry or common sense.

How to comply. To ensure that your workplace conforms to the general safety standards imposed by OSHA, take the following steps:

Step 1: Get a copy of the OSHA standards and identify which of the standards apply to your workplace. Contact the nearest OSHA area office if you need a copy of the OSHA standards or if you have any problems determining whether a standard applies to your workplace. You can also check with a safety consultant. Unfortunately, there is no shortcut in locating which of the 144 general industry standards might apply.

Step 2: After you have a copy of the current standards, review the introduction, often called scope and application, for every standard that is potentially applicable to the workplace.

Step 3: Once you determine which standards apply to your workplace and become familiar with them, implement the requirements of all standards that apply to the particular workplace and the particular work task or operation.

Step 4: Make sure that any occupational hazard not covered by an industry-specific standard isn't covered by a general industry standard or by the general duty clause.

Loans. If you need financial help in complying with federal or state standards, loans are available (either directly or in cooperation with banks or other lending institution) to assist any small business in "effecting additions to or alteration in the equipment, facilities, or methods of operation of such business."

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