Employee Safety and Retaliation
It is illegal for an employer to retaliate against an employee who exercises a right under the law. Federal and state laws prohibit an employer from engaging in retaliatory tactics, like firing, demoting, disciplining, or reducing an employee's hours, when the employee reports a workplace safety hazard.
Retaliation under OSHA
The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) enforces federal safety standards in the workplace. Under OSHA, employers must provide a safe workplace. It is the employers responsibility to document workplace injuries, warn employees of potential dangers, and to provide safety training. When an employee discovers a safety hazard, the employee has a legal right to report it to the employer or to OSHA.
OSHA prohibits an employer from engaging in retaliatory measures against the employee that filed a complaint, assisted in an OSHA investigation, or spoke to an OSHA investigator. If the employer engages in illegal retaliation against the employee, the employee may file a complaint with a local OSHA office within 30 days from the retaliatory action. To prevail, the employee must prove that the employer's retaliatory actions resulted because of the employee's participation in the OSHA investigation. If, for instance, the employer discharged the employee because of incompetence or because of company layoffs, the employee will not succeed.
OSHA must respond to a retaliation complaint within 90 days. If the investigator determines that the employee was the victim of illegal retaliation, they will seek remedial measures by the employer, such as reinstatement of the employee or paying the employee back pay. If the employer refuses, OSHA can file a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of the employee.
Retaliation under State Law
In addition to OSHA regulations, many states have laws that regulate employee workplace safety. Just like under OSHA, many states also provide provisions that prohibit retaliation. Retaliation laws vary by state, but many include provisions that prohibit an employer from firing an employee that exercises the legal right to report a safety violation. Some states even protect an employee's right to enforce provisions that require employers to report the presence of hazardous material in the workplace to employees. In general, an employee may file a retaliation complaint with the appropriate state agency.