The Basics of Labor Law: A Look at Workplace Health and Safety

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Employee handbookLabor Law

Labor law is a complex field of study that covers all aspects of the contemporary workplace. In fact, the United States Department of Labor (DOL) and state DOL bureaus administer and enforce hundreds of   laws and regulations on the subjects of:

  • Employee Benefits
  • Employee Polygraph Protection
  • Employee Protection
  • Family and Medical Leave
  • Garnishment of Wages
  • Government Contracts, Grants or Financial Aid
  • Plant Closings and Layoffs
  • Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment
  • Unions & Their Members
  • Veterans’ Preference
  • Wages and Hours
  • Workers’ Compensation
  • Workplace Safety and Health

Certain industries – like agriculture, construction, mining and transportation – are covered by additional laws and legislative acts to ensure safe and fair working conditions. Miners, longshoremen and workers for the Department of Energy also have special workers’ compensation programs covering workplace-specific hazards.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)

Let’s stay on the subject of workplace safety and health, and take a closer look at the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act, which is directed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

OSHA’s mission is “to assure safe and healthful workplaces by setting and enforcing standards, and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.” To this end, the OSH Act covers all employers and employees in the United States, including Washington D.C. and U.S. territories, either at the state or federal level. This includes union and non-union employees in the majority of for-profit and not-for-profit businesses.

Individuals not covered under the Act are people who are self-employed, family members working on family-run farms, and employees of industries which are governed under other legislation such as mining, nuclear energy and transportation. Federal and state employees are also typically covered under separate programs.

Depending on the type of business, the OSH Act may have detailed articles outlining workplace hazards, controls, processes and procedures. All businesses, however, are covered by what the Act calls the General Duty Clause which states that each employer “shall furnish a place of employment which is free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” This clause allows certain basic provisions, including:

  • Access to their individual records concerning exposure to toxic materials in the workplace.
  • Access to personal protective equipment (PPE) applicable to their workplace (eye protection, hearing protection, etc.), along with training in proper use of PPE.
  • Access to and training in the use of material safety data sheets (MSDS) which advise the business’ customers of any hazardous materials contained in a shipment of goods.

Employees also have the right under the OSH Act to report any OSHA violations and remain free from reprisal of any kind. In addition, there are a number of labor, public safety and environmental laws that provide for “whistleblower” protections. Employees that have been fired or otherwise discriminated against for uncovering a violation can sue for back wages, lost benefits and/or reemployment.

This brief overview of one component of labor law is enough to remind us why companies should invest in maintaining a safe and healthy workplace at all costs. Professionals with education and experience in occupational health and safety can serve as a valuable resource at all levels of the organization, whether they are managing activities on the floor, accompanying OSHA representatives on inspections, or serving as the Chief Health and Safety Officer at the executive table.

Learn More

Learn to identify and analyze potential workplace hazards, infractions and risks through a bachelor of science in occupational safety online. At Eastern Kentucky University, you will gain a graduate-level education by industry-experienced educators and fire and safety professionals who are committed to teaching and preparing you for continued success.