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Workers' Rights

On-the-job Safety

In 1970 Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act (P.L. 91-596). This law set up a comprehensive national policy to guarantee workers a safe and healthy workplace. The Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) enforces this statute.

Under the law, employers must furnish employment that is "free from recognized hazards" that are "likely to cause death or serious physical harm." OSHA has established hundreds of detailed occupational safety and health standards that regulate specific workplace hazards so employers will know what is required of them. Things covered include personal protective equipment, machine protections, structural protections, fire protection, and protection against hazardous materials, such as flammable gases.

While OSHA has established many required standards, it also issues nonbinding regulations. For example, in April 1998 OSHA recommended that retail outlets, such as convenience stores with a history of crime, use bulletproof glass or employ at least two clerks at night. It also suggested that such stores keep a minimum amount of cash on hand, use drop safes (a cashier can put money into but cannot take the money out of such a safe) and security cameras, be well lit, and train workers how to behave during an armed robbery.

OSHA also gives workers the right to information about the kinds of hazards to which they are exposed in the workplace. Workers may be entitled to recover damages if they are harmed by unsafe and unhealthy workplace conditions. In certain rare circumstances, workers can walk off the job rather than expose themselves to an imminently dangerous situation.

According to OSHA, 33% of all work-related injuries and illnesses are a result of work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). In 1997 compensation for such injuries comprised $1 out of every $3 spent on workers' compensation. Costs of MSDs were expected to rise from $20 billion to $54 billion per year. Ergonomic programs incorporate seating and office furniture that minimize the occurrence of such MSDs as repetitive stress disorder. At the beginning of the twenty-first century OSHA began developing ergonomics guidelines for select industries, including poultry processing plants, retail grocery stores, and nursing homes (http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/ergonomics/guidelines.html). Adherence to these guidelines is voluntary as of 2006; however, OSHA can cite employers who fail to implement the guidelines under the general duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which requires employers to maintain a workplace free of "recognized serious hazards." The following recommendations are quoted from Ergonomics for the Prevention of Musculoskeletal Disorders: Guidelines for Retail Grocery Stores (http://www.osha.gov/ergonomics/guidelines/retailgrocery/retailgrocery.html#front):

  • Rotate stocking tasks to avoid prolonged kneeling, squatting, and overhead reaching.
  • Arrange shelves so that heavy items and fast-moving items are stored within easy reach. This reduces the stress on the body caused by bending or reaching overhead.
  • Use thermal gloves when stocking frozen foods. Cold temperatures can reduce circulation, causing stress on the hands. If pricing, use a glove with textured fingertips to wipe frost from frozen foods.
  • Use a powered in-feed conveyor to help cashiers bring the items to their best work zone, rather than leaning and reaching to get items farther up the conveyor.
  • Locate commonly used items such as the cash drawer and printer within easy horizontal reach.
  • Adjust the checkstand height to match the cashier's waist height, or use a platform.
  • Set scanners and conveyors at the same height so that cashiers can slide items across rather than lift them.
  • Use bags with handles. Handles make the bags easier and less stressful to carry.

For young people, workplace safety is covered by FLSA, in addition to the OSHA regulations covering all workers. FLSA prohibits employing minors under age eighteen to work at seventeen hazardous nonfarm jobs. These prohibited jobs include driving a motor vehicle, being an outside helper on a motor vehicle, operating various power-driven machines, and performing roofing operations. Limited exemptions are provided for apprentices and student-learners under specified conditions.

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Jobs and Career OpportunitiesCareers and Occupations: Looking to the FutureWorkers' Rights - Wages And Hours, Unemployment, On-the-job Safety, Compensation For Work-related Injuries And Illnesses - FAMILY AND MEDICAL LEAVE