Ayers, Whitlow & Dressler

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How OSHA works to enforce employer obligations and worker rights

News accounts about workplace accidents, whether they happen in North Carolina or elsewhere, often refer to investigations by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. These accounts can lead some who are unfamiliar with how OSHA works to conclude this government agency only gets involved after an accident takes place, and that its main function is to punish employers with fines.

OSHA, however, is more involved with workplace safety than that, and can be a valuable resource for employers and workers in preventing accidents.

Because OSHA representatives cannot be everywhere at once, the agency relies on employer compliance with regulations and employees who are aware of their right to a safe work environment -- and who will enlist the aid of OSHA if need be to ensure that a safe environment is maintained.

It helps to think of OSHA’s role as two sides of a coin. One side is establishing and enforcing employer obligations; the other is investigating employee complaints and accidents after an employee has been injured to determine whether violations were to blame.

Employer obligations include identifying and removing, or at least reducing, safety hazards. For hazards that cannot be eliminated, employers must warn employees of their existence and provide them with training and protective gear as appropriate. Employers must also keep records of work injuries and display an OSHA-approved information poster where workers can see it.

Employees have the right to be properly trained to avoid workplace hazards, to review the employer’s documentation of workplace accidents or related illnesses, and to confidentially request an OSHA workplace inspection and to accompany that inspection when it occurs.

Employees, employers and OSHA all have the ability to spot safety problems before they become potentially serious hazards. When all three parties work together, a number of work accidents can be prevented.

However, no matter how many preventative measures are taken, accidents can and do still happen in workplaces across the country. When they do, an injured worker may want to speak with an attorney in order to understand what steps must be taken to seek the support he or she may need.

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