Workplace safety: an overview
Workplace safety and health laws establish regulations designed to eliminate personal injuries and illnesses from occurring in the workplace. The laws consist primarily of federal and state statutes. Federal laws and regulations preempt state ones where they overlap or contradict one another.
The main statute protecting the health and safety of workers in the workplace is the Occupational and Safety Health Act (OSHA). Congress enacted this legislation under its constitutional grant of authority to regulate interstate commerce. OSHA requires the Secretary of Labor to promulgate regulations and safety and health standards to protect employees and their families. Every private employer who engages in interstate commerce is subject to the regulations promulgated under OSHA.
In order to aid the Secretary of Labor in promulgating and enforcing regulations, the act establishes the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health. The Secretary of Labor may authorize inspections of workplaces to ensure that regulations are being followed, examine conditions about which complaints have been filed, and determine what regulations are needed. If an employer is violating a safety or health regulation, a citation is issued. The act establishes the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission to review citation orders of the Secretary of Labor. The Commission's decision is also subject to judicial review. The Secretary of Labor may impose fines with the amounts varying according to the type of violation and length of non-compliance with the citation. The Secretary of Labor may also seek an injunction to restrain conditions or practices which pose an immediate threat to employees. The act also establishes the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health which, under the Secretary of Health and Welfare, conducts research on workplace health and safety and recommends regulations to the Secretary of Labor. Federal agencies must establish their own safety and health regulations. The regulations that have been promulgated under OSHA are extensive, currently filling five volumes of the Code of Federal Regulations.
Under OSHA, states are not allowed, without permission of the Secretary of Labor, to promulgate any laws that regulate an area directly covered by OSHA regulations. They may, however, regulate in areas not governed by federal OSHA regulations. States wishing to regulate areas covered by OSHA regulations must submit a plan for federal approval. The amount of state regulation varies greatly. California is an example of a state that has chosen to adopt many of its own regulations in place of those promulgated under OSHA.