Unsafe Work Conditions

Is Your Workplace a Safe and Healthy Environment?

California workers are protected from unsafe working conditions under California Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1973 (Cal/OSHA). However, many workers do not know what their rights are, or how to protect those rights.  Under Cal/OSHA, an employer must provide its employees a place of employment that is safe and healthful.  An employment location that is safe and healthful is one that is free “from danger to the life, safety, or health of employees as the nature of the employment reasonably permits.”[1].  Part of this requirement includes providing employees with specific safety manuals and guidelines.  While, Cal/OSHA is a state law, it is similar to OSHA, its federal counterpart. Cal/OSHA’s provisions were meant to be more comprehensive than the federal law, but in the event that

A Safe and healthful is one that is free “from danger to the life, safety, or health of employees as the nature of the employment reasonably permits.”

Cal/OSHA’s provisions fall short of the federal law’s provisions, employees will still be protected under the provisions in OSHA.

Who is Protected by Cal/OSHA?

Cal/OSHA was designed to protect just about everyone in the workplace, from the managers and supervisors down to the hourly employee. However, Cal/OSHA does not apply to every type of job. Generally, independent contractors and jobs that are classified as household domestic services are not covered by Cal/OSHA.[2]*  If you are unsure whether Cal/OSHA’s provisions apply to you or your job, you should check with either your employer or Cal/OSHA.

What Does Cal/OSHA Cover?

Cal/OSHA is the California state counterpart to OSHA, the federal health and safety law. However, Cal/OSHA is distinct in that many of its provisions are more comprehensive and provide greater protection than the federal statute. Cal/OSHA provides enhanced protection for:

  1. exposure to chemicals (including acetone, aniline, manganese, diacetyl)
  2. exposure to concrete and masonry dust,
  3. high-rise window cleaners, and
  4. mining and tunneling jobs.

Cal/OSHA also provides protection in situations where the federal law does not, including:

  1. repetitive motion injuries,
  2. heat illnesses, and
  3. aerosol transmissible diseases (diseases which are airborne, such as tuberculosis, measles, and flu)

Additionally, Cal/OSHA requires employers to develop a comprehensive Injury and Illness and Prevention Program in order to inform employees of the hazards related to their job.

Requirements for the Injury and Illness and Prevention Programs

The Injury and Illness and Prevention Program (IIPP) must be written and it must depict the potential hazards for each particular job category. The IIPP must include, at minimum:

  1. the people responsible for implementing the IIPP,
  2. a system for how the employer identifies and evaluates hazards in the workplace;
  3. a list of how the employer addresses and corrects unsafe or unhealthy conditions in the workplace;
  4. a manual on health and safety that  instructs employees on safe and healthy workplace practices; (the manual must include specific instructions that address the specific hazards of each employee’s particular job);
  5. a system for communicating with employees about health and safety issues, (the system must be designed in such a way that employees are encouraged to report any workplace hazards they encounter).

It is your employer’s duty to make sure that you are properly trained and informed regarding health and safety issues related to your particular job.  However, there are times when the employer may not be aware of a problem.  In these cases, you should be able to inform your employer of any health and safety issues without fear of retaliation or losing your job. After being informed of the problem, the employer has a legal obligation to address and remedy the situation in a timely fashion.

(For a complete list of all of an employer’s legal requirements for an IIPP see California Labor Code § 6401.7)

In addition to the IIPP, employers are required to post information regarding its obligations and employee protections.  The posted notification should provide employees with all the necessary information regarding health and safety rules and regulations at that job as well as their right to:

  1. report working conditions that they believe to be unsafe,
  2. request safety inspections,
  3. refuse to continue or start working in conditions that are dangerous,
  4. be provided information under the Hazardous Substances and Information Training Act.

Additionally, the notice should provide the address and telephone number you can call in order to report hazardous or unsafe working conditions.  This notice should be posted in an area that is visible to all employees and where employee notices are normally posted.

Employee Rights Established Under Cal/OSHA

Under Cal/OSHA’s provisions, you are allowed to refuse to work in conditions that either violate the labor code or that create a hazard or unsafe condition for the employees.  While there is no definitive answer as to what creates a hazard that would violate Cal/OSHA, in the past companies have been fined for the following conditions:

  1. warehouses that had unstable stacked goods,
  2. allowing employees to continue to work in excessive heat,
  3. having unguarded equipment,
  4. failing to provide protective equipment, and
  5. overly cluttered warehouse aisles.

This list represents only a small sample of situations that violate California’s health and safety regulations.  If you think a condition present in your place of employment presents a health or safety issue, you should first talk to your employer and if your employer does not rectify the situation, you should file a complaint with Cal/OSHA.

Filing a Complaint

You have a legal right to file a complaint with Cal/OSHA and to request an inspection of your workplace if you believe there are unsafe or unhealthful working conditions. However, prior to filing a complaint with Cal/OSHA, you should first talk to your employer about the situation. It’s possible that your employer is unaware of the issue or that they are aware and are in the process of fixing it.

California law provides protection for “whistleblowers”

When bringing a complaint or an issue to your employer’s attention be sure to let your employer know the entire extent of the problem and make sure that your employer is addressing the entire problem and not just a small portion of it. [3]

There are times where an employer is aware of a hazardous condition and hasn’t, or isn’t willing, to address it. In these cases, you should contact Cal/OSHA and file an official complaint.  When filing the complaint you may request that Cal/OSHA not reveal your identity to your employer. An official complaint can be filed by contacting Cal/OSHA at any one of its many district offices or by filing by phone, fax, email, or mail.  When filing a complaint be prepared to provide detailed information regarding the hazardous condition including:

  1. The name, address, and phone number of the worksite,
  2. The name and title of the manager at the worksite,
  3. A detailed description of the hazardous condition,
  4. Work tasks performed in close proximity to the hazard,
  5. Number of employees at the worksite and number who may be affected by the hazardous condition,
  6. Any employees who have been injured or are showing symptoms of illnesses that may have been caused by the hazard,
  7. How long the hazard has existed and whether the employer has taken any action to address and correct the hazard,
  8. The name and contact information of any employee bargaining unit at the site.

Again, you do not have to provide your name and contact information if you don’t want to. However, providing Cal/OSHA with your contact information allows Cal/OSHA to follow up with you and provide you with the results of the investigation.  (In addition to filing the complaint, you may legally refuse to continue working if you believe that there is a “real and apparent hazard” to you or the other employees.)[4]

Whistleblower Protections

California’s policy is to encourage employees to speak to their employers or to Cal/OSHA whenever a workplace hazard becomes apparent to the employee.  In order to protect employees from any potential problems with their employers, Cal/OSHA provides “whistleblower” protections.  A whistleblower is a person who provides information to a government or law enforcement agency, or to a person of authority regarding hazardous or unsafe working conditions.[5]  The employee must also reasonably believe that the information he or she is providing discloses either a violation of state or federal law, including statutes or regulations, and discloses unsafe working conditions or practices at the employee’s work place.  Under Cal/OSHA, you cannot be fired, retaliated against, disciplined, or discriminated against for either filing the complaint or for refusing to work in conditions that are hazardous and unhealthful.[6]

California takes workplace safety very seriously and encourages all employees to file official complaints when they believe they are working in unsafe or unhealthy conditions. If you encounter anything in your place of work that you believe to be unsafe or unhealthful, you should first, take your concerns to your employer, and if after being informed of the problem, your employer fails to adequately address the issue, you should then file a complaint with Cal/OSHA and contact a knowledgeable attorney.

[1] California Labor Code § 6309

[2]  However, employees engaged in Household domestic service may be able to bring a civil suit against their employees for poor working conditions.

[3] http://www.dir.ca.gov/dosh/dosh_publications/osha_userguide.pdf

[4] https://www.dir.ca.gov/dosh/dosh_publications/shpstreng012000.pdf

[5] https://www.dir.ca.gov/dlse/WhistleblowersNotice.pdf

[6] https://www.dir.ca.gov/dlse/WhistleblowersNotice.pdf

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