OSHA is a federal government agency that oversees workplace safety. And while employers and workers alike are generally familiar with OSHA and some of the rules enforced by the agency, not all workers understand how OSHA can play a role in workers’ compensation or civil personal injury cases that arise from a work-related accident.
In this blog, we break down some basics about OSHA, workplace safety standards, and the rights of injured workers.
What is OSHA?
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is a regulatory agency of the U.S. Department of Labor. It was created under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) in December 1970 with the mission to promote safe working conditions as a basic human right.
At the time, OSHA and the OSH Act were widely viewed as historic reforms, largely because no national laws or safety standards existed to address workplace safety. In fact, by 1970, over 14,000 workers died on the job each year and 2 million more suffered injuries or illnesses that prevented them from working.
Today, the data shows that OSHA has dramatically decreased work-related injuries, illnesses, and deaths, all while U.S. employment has doubled to 146 million workers at over 10 million worksites:
- In 2018, approximately 5,250 workers died on the job. That’s about 14 workers per day, as compared to 38 per day in 1970.
- The rate of reported serious injuries and illnesses has dropped from 10.9 per 100 workers in 1972 to 2.8 per 100 workers in 2018.
What OSHA Does
The OSH Act applies to most private employers and workers in the U.S. and territories under federal jurisdiction. In these states and territories, OSHA works to assure safe working conditions by setting and enforcing standards, providing training, and engaging in outreach, education, and assistance. Some key areas of OSHA’s focus include:
Employer requirements to:
- Provide workers with a workplace free from serious hazards.
- Comply with all OSHA safety and health standards and prominently display OSHA posters.
- Provide workers with necessary PPE, safety training, and exams as required by OSHA standards.
- Keep accurate injury and illness records and perform tests (i.e. air sampling).
- Timely notify OSHA workplace fatalities (8 hours) or serious injuries (24 hours).
- Not retaliate against workers for exercising their rights, including the right to report.
Workers’ rights to:
- File confidential OSHA complaints or complaints for retaliation.
- Receive information and training about hazards and OSHA standards.
- Receive records of injuries / illnesses and testing in their workplace.
- Participate in OSHA inspections.
Construction, General Industry, Maritime, and Agriculture standards that require employers to:
- Provide fall protection
- Prevent trench collapse / cave-ins
- Prevent exposure to infectious diseases and harmful chemicals
- Ensure worker safety in confined spaces
- Guard machines
- Provide respirators and other PPE
- Provide training for dangerous jobs
OSHA has the authority to cite employers for violating OSHA standards and endangering workers. Citations are typically issued after OSHA has conducted a site inspection following a complaint or a reported injury, illness, or death.
Depending on the nature of the violation and the employer’s record, OSHA citations can have major repercussions for employers, including large fines which escalate by severity of the offense and potential enrollment in OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP).
Workers’ Comp & Personal Injury Suits
Although OSHA violations can arise from workplace accidents that cause injuries, it is important to understand that they do not necessarily influence how workers will seek compensation for their injuries. That’s because eligible workers have a right to recover benefits under workers’ compensation for any work-related injury, and may only bring civil claims under certain circumstances.
- Workers’ Compensation. Generally, workers’ compensation is the exclusive remedy for workers injured on the job. As no-fault insurance, it provides medical and disability benefits to workers regardless of fault (and even if a worker is partly to blame for their own injury). Whether there are regulatory violations or not, workers harmed in the course of their employment are entitled to workers’ compensation. If a worker is injured in a work-related accident, they cannot sue their employer for the accident, except in certain rare situations.
- Personal injury claims. In some cases, there will be exceptions to the exclusive remedy rule. This is true when workers are injured due to the negligence or violations of law of a third party other than their employer, such as when a worker’s injury resulted from certain violations of the NY Labor Law, such as Labor Law § 200, Labor Law § 241(6), or Labor Law § 240(1) (the Scaffold Law). In these scenarios, workers may have grounds to pursue civil claims against the site owner and general contractor to recover compensation that isn’t available under workers’ comp – including compensation for pain and suffering, past and future medical expenses, and past and future lost wages and benefits. Unlike workers’ comp, however, workers who bring civil claims must prove a defendant’s fault / liability.
OSHA & Workplace Accident Cases
Although there are other issues involved when it comes to determining a worker’s right to pursue workers’ compensation and civil injury claims, OSHA can still play a role in helping workers build a successful case or protecting their rights. Some examples include:
- Worksite inspections and accident investigations. One of OSHA’s main duties is to inspect job sites for compliance and conduct post-accident investigations. Records of past OSHA inspections and any investigation into a worker’s injury or death can be obtained to see if employer knew of hazards or had recurring compliance problems. OSHA investigations can also provide insight into possible violations and applicable standards, witnesses, and key supervisors or personnel that may be useful should a worker decide to pursue a civil claim.
- Evidence of negligence. In certain cases, OSHA violations arising out of a workplace accident can be used as some evidence of negligence, including certain construction accident cases.
- Research. OSHA conducts extensive research of workplace safety issues, trends, and hazards for access by the public. When litigating an injury case, attorneys may consult this research to help clients build stronger claims.
- Standards and violations. OSHA creates and enforces numerous safety and health standards for a variety of industries and occupations. For attorneys who litigate construction accident and work accident cases, these standards can provide guidance when conducting independent investigations into possible negligence.
- Workers’ rights to important documentation. OSHA enforces laws that require employers to provide workers with copies of important documents, including records of previous injuries or illnesses in their workplace, training documents, their own medical records, and more. This information can be useful when pursuing claims.
- Complaints and retaliation protections. Workers who’ve been injured on the job have the right to file complaints and assist OSHA inspectors. In the event that workers face retaliation and adverse employment actions after bringing workers’ comp or injury claims or filing complaints, OSHA laws will protect them against unfair employer conduct.
The Perecman Firm, P.L.L.C., has fought for numerous workers and families across NYC following construction accidents and other work-related accidents. In addition to being OSHA 10 Certified, our attorneys have extensive experience handling matters that involve OSHA, the many standards it enforces, and the implications of violations and dangerous working conditions.
If you have questions about your rights following a construction or work-related accident, our team is here to help. Call (212) 577-9325 or contact us online for a free consultation.