Do employees have the right to a safe working environment?

Does your employer have an obligation to protect its employees from hazardous workplaces? Does it have a duty to prevent and eliminate dangerous conditions?

There are both federal and state laws that protect employees from dangerous workplace conditions and ensure them of a healthy and safe work environment. The federal law is the Occupational Health and Safety Act; it contains industry-specific standards as well as general provisions that create health and safety obligation for employers.

While Texas employers are subject to the Occupational Health and Safety Act, they are also subject to several state statutes as well that regulate workplace safety and encourage employers to protect their employee from dangerous workplace conditions.

The Occupational Health and Safety Act

The Occupational Health and Safety Act, passed in 1970, requires employers to provide a healthy and safe workplace for their employees. The Act is enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) which takes employee complaints about hazardous workplaces and conducts on-site inspections.

The Act gives employees the right to notify their employers or OSHA about an unsafe workplace and to request an on-site inspection.

The Act also imposes certain requirements on employers, including industry-specific standards. However, the Act contains a catch-all provision called the “General Duty Clause.” An employer violates the General Duty Clause if a workplace condition presented a hazard that was recognized by the employer or its industry, the hazard was likely to cause death or serious injury, and the employer could have feasibly eliminated or significantly minimized the hazard.

For example, an employer in the tree felling industry who fails to protect its employees from falling trees violates the Act. In that case, the hazard of a falling tree is a recognized hazard, and the employer could have minimized the risk by requiring employees to stay away from the fall zone.

The Act also imposes specific standards for different industries: general industry, construction, agriculture, and maritime. For example, the general industry provisions set forth guidelines on how explosives should be stored, when eye and face protection is required, and the use and location of portable fire extinguishers, among others. Similarly, the construction provisions provide that an employer must, among other things, instruct its employees in recognizing and avoiding unsafe conditions in the workplace.

Texas Workplace Health and Safety Laws

Texas has various statutes that govern occupational health and safety: notably, the Texas Occupational Safety Act and the Hazard Communication Act. These are just a few of the statutes that impose obligations on employers to protects their employees from workplace hazards.

The Texas Occupational Safety Act requires employers to provide and maintain a reasonably safe work environment, including implementing reasonable safeguards to protect the lives, health, and safety of its employees.

Similarly, the Hazard Communication Act works to protect employees from hazardous work materials. Because the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act requires only some employers to comply with its hazardous communications standards, Texas’s Hazard Communication Act covers the remainder of those employers. It requires employers to create a workplace chemical lists and material safety data sheets for each hazardous chemical purchased for the workplace and to make sure that each is correctly labelled.