Although the law is fairly clear on the standards that employees should expect in the workplace, the situation for contract workers can be a lot more confusing, with some assuming that they have no rights at all. In fact, there are a number of laws in place aimed at providing you with safe working conditions, and if something goes wrong because one of them is breached, you could well be entitled to take action.
Knowing where you stand is the first step to protecting yourself and those around you and making sure you’re treated with the respect you deserve.
At first glance, some workplaces seem so much safer than others that it’s hard to imagine accidents happening there. Compared to a factory full of heavy machinery, an office might seem very safe indeed, but in fact, as these are the most common environments for Americans to work in, they’re where the majority of workplace injuries occur. Non signposted wet floors and litter left lying around can lead to trips, slips, and falls. Over-stacked shelves can fall or spill their contents onto people. Poorly maintained cooling or ventilation systems can allow germs to breed, leading to disease outbreaks. All these are matters that the business owner is potentially responsible for, and they can be liable in the event of injury to an ordinary employee, a contractor, or a visitor to the premises.
Health and safety
Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, every US business is obliged to provide healthful working conditions for people working there. Unless engaged in domestic, mining, or agricultural work, they are responsible for the following:
Keeping the workplace clean and sanitary, as dry as possible, and free from hazards such as loose floorboards or protruding nails.
Ensuring the aisles and passageways are clearly signposted and free from obstructions, with covers or guardrails present to protect personnel from falling into things.
Making sure that shelves and other supporting structures do not have loads placed on them that are too heavy for them to bear.
- Providing workers with proper training so that they can move around the workplace and use workplace equipment as safely as possible.
When it comes to training, it’s especially important for managers to look out for contract workers – when you’re new to a workplace, you won’t always know what to expect there. Not only do you need to be kept safe from harm, but you also need to be properly instructed so that you don’t accidentally put others at risk.
An employer should not bring you in to undertake work that you’re not competent to handle. You may be asked to provide documentation to prove that you can do the job.
When you are first asked to consider a contract, any special risks (beyond those that apply in every workplace) should be fully explained to you. When you arrive in the workplace, you should be shown around, and the manager should clearly identify where hazards are, as well as showing you the fire alarms and fire exits, and explaining any emergency procedures that may apply. You should be told when you can take breaks (which must be adequate to keep you from doing risky work when overtired) and where to get medical help or find a first aid kit if required. When the contract comes to an end, there should be a review where any safety issues that emerged during your work can be discussed.
You should never agree to undertake work without a written contract as this will be necessary in order for you to seek compensation if you are injured. This should be as specific as possible. Never mislead an employer about your certification or training because this could potentially invalidate some of your protection under the law.
Protecting other people
The presence of a contractor in the workplace also creates potential risks for other people, so always introduce yourself to your new colleagues and let them know your situation. Be clear about the limits of your expertise, and don’t let yourself be persuaded to take on jobs outside the scope of your contract, even if you simply want to be helpful – doing so could place both you and them at risk and could also mean that you are liable if they are injured. If you have concerns about how the workplace is managed, discuss them with the business owner.
By being alert to the issues that you face as a contractor, you will be considerably safer and able to do a better job.