Help Wanted: Health, safety in the workplace

Workplace safety can create fear in employees. The Workplace safety can create fear in employees. The State Labor Department suggests that you first take your concerns to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Photo Credit: iStock

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Carrie Mason-Draffen Newsday columnist Carrie Mason Draffen

Mason-Draffen, a business reporter, writes a column about workplace issues. ...

DEAR CARRIE: I have some health and safety concerns about the company where I work. The machinery we use lacks safety guards; the factory has no effective dust control or dust-collection systems. The work and storage areas are contaminated with raccoon feces. Also, one building has asbestos insulation that doesn't seem to be in good shape. Other buildings still have Sandy-damaged metal shingles that flap; some have already tumbled down. The owners are aware of these issues but have done nothing. Given these problems, if I quit my job, would I be entitled to collect unemployment insurance? -- Legal Out?DEAR LEGAL OUT: That could be tricky. The State Labor Department suggested that you first take your concerns to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Bear in mind that generally when employees quit a job they're not eligible for unemployment benefits. Of course every rule has exceptions, especially for egregious circumstances.

"In general, to qualify for benefits a claimant who voluntarily leaves employment must have had a compelling reason for leaving and must have made a reasonably prudent attempt to resolve the problem and protect the employment," the department says.

Fortunately, OSHA has standards to address your concerns.

As for the lack of safety guards: "There are very specific standards on the requirements to guard 'points of operation' and 'moving parts' of machinery to protect employees from amputation," said Tony Ciuffo, who heads OSHA's Long Island office in Westbury.

Regarding your concern about the raccoon droppings, OSHA has rules for that, too. Companies are supposed to keep their workplaces free of vermin and their droppings.

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As for asbestos, employers must comply with OSHA standards to keep the materials from becoming disturbed and airborne, Ciuffo said.

Lastly, regarding the dust problem, OSHA doesn't have rules as such but it does have standards related to overexposure to chemicals that can become airborne and require proper ventilation, Ciuffo said.

Even if OSHA doesn't have a standard for a workplace hazard, the employer could still be compelled to correct the problem.

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"The employer may still be bound to correct these hazards as a matter of general duty," Ciuffo said.

He recommends that you contact the office with any concerns at 516-334-3344.

"We will not only explain the employee's right to make a complaint to OSHA but also explain their protection from reprisal under the whistle-blower program," he said.

 

DEAR CARRIE: I work as an outside salesperson for a small equipment distributor. I have been behind in submitting expenses. Now, without any warning, the company says that anything that's more than three weeks old will not be paid. Is this legal?

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-- Legal Expense Rule?DEAR LEGAL EXPENSE: It's legal because you're talking about a fringe benefit. Employers can decide whether to offer it and set the rules for paying -- or not paying it.

"Under the New York State Labor Law, payment for time not actually worked is not required unless the employer has established a policy to grant such pay," the Labor Department's website says. "When an employer does decide to create a benefit policy, that employer is free to impose any conditions they choose."

Once the company establishes such a policy, it has to honor anything you accrued under those rules. But absent a contract, the employer can legally change the policy whenever it wants.

 

For general information on the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act, go to http://1.usa.gov/12vd7cd

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For more on expense reimbursements and state labor law, go to http://bit.ly/vueHQu

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