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Employment Law

Physical Safety

Federal and state statutes regulate workplace hazards to avoid or minimize employee injury and disease. These laws concern problems such as dangerous machinery, hazardous materials, and noise. A more recent trend has been the banning of smoking in the workplace. All of these laws place the burden on employers to maintain a safe and healthy workplace.

Employees photographed in a Troy, New York, shirt factory around 1907, a time when many employees were hired under the concept of liberty of contract.

The federal government's main tool in workplace safety is the OCCUPATIONAL SAFETY AND HEALTH ACT OF 1970 (OSHA) (29 U.S.C.A. §§ 651–678 [1988]). OSHA attempts to balance the employee's need for a safe and healthy working environment against the employer's desire to function without undue government interference. OSHA issues occupational safety and health standards, and employers must meet these standards or face civil and, in rare occurrences, criminal penalties.

When an employee is injured on the job, the employee may file a compensation claim with the state WORKERS' COMPENSATION system. Prior to WORLD WAR I, an injured employee had to sue his or her employer in state court, alleging a tort violation. This avenue rarely proved successful, as employees were reluctant to testify about work conditions and thus risk the possible loss of their job. Without witnesses, an employee had little chance of recovery. In addition, employers were protected by legal defenses to NEGLIGENCE that usually allowed them to escape liability.

Dissatisfaction with this situation led the states to enact workers' compensation laws, which set up an administrative process for compensating employees for work-related injuries. These systems provide compensation while a worker is physically unable to work (i.e., temporary disability), provide retraining if the employee can no longer perform the same job, and provide compensation indefinitely if the worker has been severely injured (i.e., total disability). Medical benefits are paid for treatment of work-related injuries. Depending on the state, employers fund this system by making state-regulated contributions to a workers' compensation insurance fund, paying insurance premiums to a private insurance company, or assuming the risk through self-insurance.

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