Five Basic Facts About How OSHA Works to Prevent Workplace Injury
- Purpose is to Prevent Work Injuries and Death– Congress enacted the Occupational Safety and Health Act (the OSH Act), 29 U.S.C.A. § 651 to § 678, to “assure so far as possible every working man and woman in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions and to preserve our human resources.” 29 U.S.C.A. § 651(b); see Gonzalez v. Ideal Tile Importing Co., Inc., 371 N.J. Super. 349, 359 (App. Div. 2004).
- Department of Labor Enforces it- a Cabinet Level Position– In pursuing those goals, Congress authorized the Secretary of Labor to promulgate health and safety standards for workplaces, 29 U.S.C.A. § 655, and established the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to enforce those standards through inspections and investigations, 29 U.S.C.A. § 657; Gonzalez, supra.
- “Employers” Are the Focus– The OSHA Act requires “employers” to comply with specific OSHA standards and also imposes a general duty on employers to provide a workplace “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” 29 U.S.C.A. § 654(a); Gonzalez, supra at 359-60. “Employers” includes ALL contractors on a work site, especially general contractors. Specifically, the OSHA regulations provide that “no contractor or subcontractor for any part of the contract work shall require any laborer or mechanic employed in the performance of the contract to work in surroundings or under working conditions which are unsanitary, hazardous, or dangerous to his health or safety.” 29 C.F.R. § 1926.20. It is ultimately the general contractor who must enforce these Regulations and determine whether or not they are being followed by the subcontractors. 29 C.F.R. § 1926.16.
- General Contractor Can Not Push its Safety Duty off to Another– a general contractor cannot delegate its duties to maintain a safe workplace under the federal OSHA regulations to another; but rather, the general contractor must maintain overall responsibility for the project. 29 C.F.R. §1926.16 (emphasis added); see Alloway v. Bradlees, supra at 237-38. (a general contractor on a work site has a non-delegable duty to maintain a safe workplace that includes “ensur[ing] ‘prospective and continuing compliance’ with the legislatively imposed non-delegable obligation to all employees on the job site, without regard to contractual or employer obligations.”)
- Modest Fines and Penalties Can Also be Imposed– Violators of specific OSHA standards or OSHA’s general duty to provide a safe workplace face civil monetary penalties. 29 U.S.C.A. § 666. Gonzalez, supra. These usually only amount to a few thousands of dollars. As a practical matter, a contractor’s liability does not hinge on whether or not OSHA investigated the incident or issued a citation. OSHA has limited resources and can not be on all jobs all the time. Probably more incidents go unreported than OSHA knows about and were liability to turn on the resources allocated to that federal agency then the purpose and intent behind law for the protection of workers would never be met. Civil liability is critical to deter unsafe contractors.
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