The U.S. government's Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) sets the standards for employee safety. The act's provisions are broad enough to cover almost any employer, including churches in certain circumstances.
OSHA applies to any business that affects interstate commerce. When do church activities qualify as a business that affects interstate commerce? Purely religious activities never do. For example, if your organist falls on the steps leading to your chancel, you will not have to worry about an OSHA citation.
On the other hand, if a church ventures beyond purely religious pursuits, it may be subject to OSHA requirements. Schools and daycare centers are clearly businesses, and are engaged in interstate-commerce because their books, supplies, and equipment can come from various parts of the country.
Churches that run an educational institution must ensure that the employees are not subjected to safety hazards and that their activities comply with OSHA standards. People who work in the church's bookstore would be entitled to similar protection. Moreover, administrative personnel, such as an office manager, are technically covered by OSHA.
A church could also be exposed to OSHA sanctions if it hires a contractor to perform remodeling work. If one of the contractor's employees is injured, he or she may sue the contractor for violation of an OSHA standard. The church will probably be sued as well, even though the church is relying on the contractor's expertise.
Several OSHA standards regarding fire prevention deserve attention from church leaders. OSHA mandates that each workplace have exits that are located a certain distance apart from one another and are never blocked. It requires that buildings be stocked with fire extinguishers in good working order and that employees be trained to use them.
OSHA also dictates that employers have a written plan to facilitate escape in case of fire and that all employees be trained on what to do in an emergency. Finally, OSHA demands that employers create and follow a fire-prevention plan that includes, among other things, procedures for disposing of flammable materials and controlling sources of combustion.
For example, if your music department plans a program that includes a procession with candles, ask questions about how that can be done without being a fire hazard. Walk the route to make sure no flammable material is in the way. Consider using battery-operated candles.
If your church has a kitchen, make sure that the stove is cleaned on a regular basis and that smoke alarms are installed in the cooking area.
Even though OSHA applies only to certain church activities, all churches would be advised to review OSHA's guidelines and voluntarily adaptOSHA standards to a church environment in three ways:
- The pastor and property committee commit to a program of increased safety and develop enthusiasm for the effort through communication with the congregation.
- Church leaders regularly inspect the church grounds and buildings, identifying hazards and items that need fixing. Is the railing on the balcony loose? How old is the stepladder used by the custodial staff? This is an opportunity to do something about all those low-priority maintenance projects that never seem to get done.
- The staff can be trained to look for potential problems and report them to the property committee as soon as possible.
Obtain more information by visiting osha.gov.