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Work Matters: Know Your Rights

As an employee, you have the right to a safe and healthy workplace. This basic right includes the right to information and training on harmful chemical exposures and protection against them. You also have the right to protection against pregnancy discrimination and to family and medical leave.

This section is organized into your employer’s responsibilities and additional laws and regulations that can help you.

Employer’s Responsibilities

By law, you have the right to a safe and healthy workplace.  Your employer is required to make sure that exposures to workplace hazards do not harm your health.  This includes chemical hazards that can affect your ability to become pregnant and have a healthy baby.

To fulfill this responsibility, your employer must:

  • Evaluate the health hazards of the chemicals used in your workplace, and involve workers in periodic inspections.
  • Inform you of the hazards - in a language you understand.
  • Protect you from the hazards by implementing a written plan to control or eliminate known hazards by a set date

Evaluating Your Chemical Exposures: Your employer may use monitoring equipment to measure the air levels of chemicals in your work area or the amount that you personally breathe in.  It may also be possible to test your blood, urine, or breath to measure your exposure.

If you are exposed to certain air levels of a few highly toxic chemicals, such as lead, cadmium, and methylene chloride, your employer is required to monitor the effects on your health.  Your employer must use a licensed health care professional for all medical monitoring procedures and provide the monitoring for free.

There are specific regulations for each of these highly toxic chemicals, but in general they require physical exams, tests to measure the amount and effects of the chemical in your body, and medical removal protection benefits.  These benefits include preserving your earnings, seniority, and other employment rights and benefits if you need special protection (including removal) from exposure to the chemical.

Informing You of Chemical Exposures: Your employer is required to inform you of the identities and dangers of the chemicals you are exposed to.  This program must be in writing and must include a list of all hazardous chemicals used in the workplace.  The program must also cover labeling, access to material safety data sheets, and employee training.(See “Hazard Communication Standard” in the “Laws and Regulations” section for more details.)

Your employer must give you access to your own employee medical records and any records of chemical exposure monitoring in the workplace if you request them in writing.  Your employer must keep these records, make them available to you for at least 30 years after your employment ends, and let you make copies.  Each workplace should have a poster telling you how to access these records. (e.g. http://www.dir.ca.gov/dosh/dosh_publications/Access_En.pdf.)

Protecting You from Chemical Exposures: Your employer must train you on the health risks of the chemicals you work with and how to use them safely.

Your employer must also provide effective ventilation. The best ventilation systems are right near the areas where chemicals are used and actually remove contaminated air before you breathe it in.  General ventilation systems, using fans to bring in fresh air, are next best.  Open doors and windows seldom provide much ventilation, but they may be better than nothing.  Dust masks and indoor fans don’t help at all.  Dust masks do not block chemical fumes, and indoor fans just blow them around. Ventilation systems must be maintained in order to work.

Your employer is required to provide you with protective equipment, such as gloves, face shields, and safety goggles.  This equipment must be cleaned, kept in good condition, and provided for free.

  • Gloves must be made of material that protects against exposure to the specific chemicals you work with.  Check the manufacturer’s instructions to find out how often you should change pairs.  Avoid latex gloves―they do not protect your skin from exposure to most chemicals, and they can cause allergic reactions, such as skin rashes, and symptoms of asthma, such as coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.  For more information on glove selection, see: http://www.ehs.berkeley.edu/healthsafety/gloveusage.html
  • Your employer should not use respirators as a substitute for other protective measures.  Respirators should be used only if ventilation and measures such as safer alternatives are not practical or effective.  In addition, your employer must meet specific requirements, including medical tests to make sure you can wear a respirator, tests to make sure it fits properly, and training to make sure you know how to use it. For more information on respirators go to: http://www.dir.ca.gov/dosh/dosh_publications/newRespira.pdf

Laws and Regulations

Most people are not familiar with the law and may even feel intimidated by it.  Don’t be!  There are many resources that can help you understand and use your legal rights. A lawyer, worker-protection agency, employee advocate, legal services organization, or other nonprofit organization may be able to help you with your particular situation.  More information on how to find help can be found on the resources page.

This section will provide you with some basic information about workplace rights and responsibilities.  Current laws, even when enforced, do not fully protect you from exposure to toxic chemicals at work.  However, it still makes sense to know basic workplace rights and responsibilities and to speak up for more protection and the best treatment you can get.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) generally covers federal government and private-sector employees.  It requires employers to provide safe and healthful workplaces.  Employers must comply with safety and health standards and keep workplaces free from serious recognized hazards.

Under OSHA, states may run their own job safety and health programs with federal approval.  California’s plan is called the California Occupational Safety and Health Program (Cal/OSHA).  Unlike federal OSHA, Cal/OSHA provides coverage to public-sector employees.  It also has some standards and regulations, including Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs), for chemicals that are not covered by federal OSHA. 

Under federal OSHA and Cal/OSHA you have many rights, including the right to:

  • Know what chemicals you may be exposed to at work
  • Receive training on chemical hazards and what precautions to take
  • Be protected from harmful chemical exposures
  • See and copy your employer’s hazard communication program, including a list of all hazardous chemicals in the workplace
  • See and copy product labels and MSDSs for products containing hazardous chemicals
  • See and copy records of chemical exposure monitoring in your work area
  • See and copy your own employee medical records
  • Receive medical monitoring for exposure to certain chemicals
  • File a confidential  complaint about safety and health hazards in the workplace
  • Protection from retaliation for reporting concerns about job safety and health to your employer, union, OSHA, or other government agency

The Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) is a federal OSHA rule that covers all hazardous chemicals.  It requires manufacturers and importers of chemical products to assess their hazards and provide information about hazards and protective measures.  It also requires employers to tell workers which chemicals they are exposed to and what the dangers of exposure are.  Employers must:

  • Identify and list hazardous chemicals in the workplace
  • Have product labels and MSDSs for products containing hazardous chemicals
  • Have a written “hazard communication program” to provide workers with information about hazards and how to protect against them
  • Inform employees about hazards through labels, MSDSs, and training

Update: The Hazard Communications Standard was finalized subsequent to the printing of Work Matters; it incorporates the Globally Harmonized System used by the European Union. One of the changes is that Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) described in Work Matters are now called Safety Data Sheets (SDSs). In addition to using pictograms, the hazard evaluation process is better defined and should result in more accurate identification of potential health hazards. See: http://www.osha.gov/dsg/hazcom/index.html

Laws Dealing with Job and Medical Rights While Pregnant: There are overlapping federal and state laws covering medical leave and job protection.  In some cases you can combine leave policies under more than one law to extend time away from the job while pregnant or in the weeks after childbirth. Non-profit employment law centers can be a helpful resource to navigate these laws.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal law that applies to employers with at least 50 employees.  It provides a right to unpaid leave for family and medical reasons such as inability to work due to pregnancy, prenatal care, and the birth and care of a newborn child.  If eligible, you can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave in a 12-month period.  California employees who are eligible will first want to use paid state Pregnancy Disability Leave (described below) before using federal unpaid leave.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) is a federal law that applies to employers with at least 15 employees and prohibits discrimination based on pregnancy.  Under the PDA, employers must treat pregnant women like other employees.  This means you have the right to work as long as you are able to perform your job. And if you are temporarily disabled due to pregnancy, you have the right to the same benefits and options that your employer gives other temporarily disabled employees. This could include accommodations such as a change in your duties or assignments, a temporary transfer, paid or unpaid leave, and the right to have your job held open for the same amount of time as your employer gives to other employees on sick or disability leave. Learn more about PDA at: http://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/pregnancy.cfm

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act is a state law that makes it unlawful for an employer to deny a request for reasonable accommodation made by an employee affected by pregnancy. In addition, the Pregnancy Disability Leave (PDL) section of the law requires all employers to provide a pregnancy leave of up to four months, even if the employer has a policy or practice that provides less than four months of leave for other similarly situated temporarily disabled employees.

Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protects both unionized and non-union employees from discrimination or retaliation, as long as two or more employees are acting together about wages, hours, or working conditions – including health and safety hazards. That is why we recommend enlisting co-workers for support when raising concerns to your employer. Some people find the NRLA easier to use and more effective to use than non-discrimination rights under other laws.

Work Matters Brochure

View Online or download a printable copy of the Work Matters brochure.

Work Matters Resources

Click here for a list of resources to help you avoid chemical exposures in the work place.


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