Public Employee Health and Safety Protections

Updated 3/23/16 - On March 24, 2015, a new state employee safety and health statute was enacted, extending federal safety and health standards to executive branch employees.  The law addressed a gap in Massachusetts statutes which exempted the executive branch from workplace safety and health requirements.  Click here to read MassCOSH's report on the statute
When the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) was passed in 1970, the law made it an option for states to provide OSHA protections to their public employees.  Massachusetts did not exercise that option – until 2014. 

That summer, with strong advocacy from MassCOSH and public employee unions, Governor Patrick signed into law an act extending safety protections to executive branch employees.  This is a critical first step toward ensuring that all the Commonwealth’s employees achieve essential occupational safety and health protections.

Municipal and public authority workers and state employees who are not employed in the executive branch:  Though few are aware of it, Massachusetts does have an occupational health and safety law:  Massachusetts General Law Chapter 149 Section 6 gives the state Department of Labor Standards (DLS) the authority to respond to complaints, and investigate injuries and deaths.  DLS uses this authority to encourage and inform public agencies that they expect them to comply with OSHA regulations as a minimum standard of employee protection.  DLS cites and can fine public employers who have been inspected and fail to address the hazards cited in the DLS report. 

However, current state law does not directly cite OSHA regulations as the minimum safety standard for city, town, higher ed and authority workers. 

Need for legislative change:  State legislation is needed to clarify and institutionalize that public employers must comply with OSHA as a minimum standard for worker safety.   An Act to Further Define Standards of Employee Safety (HB1756, SB 999) amends the section of the law that gives the state the authority to investigate and establish regulations to protect worker health and safety, and establishes federal OSHA as the baseline.  This way, all employees have consistent safety protections – not just after a death or serious injury. Click here for fact sheet.

The language reads:  Section 6 of chapter 149 of the general laws is hereby amended by adding a new sentence at the end of the first paragraph as follows:  All such rules, regulations and orders for the prevention of accidents and the prevention of industrial or occupational diseases shall provide at least the level of protection to employees as are provided under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, 29 U.S.C. chapter 15, including standards and provisions of the general duty clause.  In the absence of a state rule, regulation or order, the department shall apply the relevant provision(s) of that act.

State Executive Branch Employees:  On June 26, 2014, Governor Patrick signed into law an act extending workplace safety and health protections to executive branch employees, advocated for by MassCOSH and state employee unions, with strong support from the Patrick Administration and the legislature (see fact sheet). 

The law was incorporated into “An Act Restoring the Minimum Wage and Providing Unemployment Insurance Reforms,” which increased the state’s minimum wage, increased burial benefits for fallen workers (also sought by MassCOSH and our allies), and institutionalized the Joint Task Force on the Underground Economy.  The law took effect in late March, 2015.

In the absence of any Massachusetts regulation, federal OSHA workplace safety standards automatically become the standard for state employees.  The Department of Labor Standards (DLS) administers and enforces the regulations, has the right to enter workplaces maintained by the Commonwealth to inspect safety and health conditions, and can issue citations for any violation the regulations.  Whistleblowers are protected from retaliation by both OSHA regulation and existing Massachusetts state law (G.L. c. 149, § 185).

The law codifies the Massachusetts Employee Safety and Health Committee that was established under Executive Order 511 (Click for Executive Order Fact Sheet), which will become the thirteen-member Occupational Health and Safety Advisory Board.  The Advisory Board includes a representative from MassCOSH, four labor representatives, a representative from UMass Lowell and representatives from the administration.

The Department of Labor Standards is now offering training to state agencies and responding to complaints.

To become involved in this important effort, contact Marcy Goldstein-Gelb at 617-825-7233 x15