The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is a federal agency that establishes rules and handles matters relating to workplace health and safety. The agency also investigates employee complaints in order to determine whether regulations have been violated. FindLaw's OSHA section contains information detailing the rights of employees with respect to safety and health considerations in the workplace, what obligations an employer must follow, and what to do when faced with potential violations. Workplaces that violate OSHA rules run the risk of lawsuits, in addition to damaging the health of their employees.
The OSH Act and OHSA at a Glance
The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (or simply, OSH) set forth the regulatory framework under which Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) operates. Violations typically result in fines. The Act provides a number of rights to employees pertaining to their well-being, including protections against retaliation:
- Working conditions that are free from risk of serious harm
- Access to clear information (in layman's terms) on potential safety and health hazards in the workplace
- Access to documentation (for review) on any illnesses or injuries pertaining to the job site
- Ability to make a confidential complaint with OSHA, and to request an inspection
- Freedom to be involved in a requested OSHA inspection
- Access to copies of any tests conducted at the work site related to potential workplace hazards
- Freedom from retaliation or discrimination in relation to OSHA complaints
The agency, created as part of the U.S. Department of Labor in 1971, has five general priorities:
- Reports of imminent dangers
- Fatalities & accidents involving the hospitalization of more than three workers
- Employee complaints
- Referrals from other government agencies
- Targeted inspections
Whistleblower Protection Under OSHA
Unless you are self-employed or fit one of the other narrow exceptions, you have the right to file a complaint against your employer for OSHA violations. If that employer takes adverse action soon after such a complaint is filed, such as a demotion or termination, the employee may have a whistleblower claim. A whistleblower is an employee who alerts the authorities about a potential violation of the law or the public trust.
Since an OSHA violation may involve any number of existing federal laws, the time limits for filing a claim depend on that particular law. For instance, a railroad worker has 180 days in which to file a complaint under the Federal Rail Safety Safety Act, while an employee has just 30 days in which to file a Clean Air Act complaint. If any adverse action is taken after filing such a complaint, you may file a whistleblower claim with OSHA within 30 days.
What to Do When Confronted with an OSHA Violation
How to respond in the face of a safety or health hazard in the workplace largely depends on whether it poses an imminent risk. If it indeed poses an imminent risk, the employee has the right to refuse that particular work-related task. The employee also has the right to refuse to return to work until the hazard is corrected.
But if there is no imminent threat, the employee first should inform the employer of the problem -- in writing. If the problem is not fixed within a reasonable amount of time, or if the employee experiences significant resistance, then a complaint may be filed with OSHA (or the appropriate agency). Remember, your employer may not legally retaliate against you for complaining of an OSHA violation.
Click on a link below to learn more about OSHA.