Both employers and employees have every reason to be equally concerned with workplace safety, both for reasons of self-protection and basic concern for the well-being of others. Unfortunately, this is not always the case in practice. When a company disregards workplace safety standards, federal law provides protection for employees who speak up.
Responsibility of the Employer
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Labor, requires all employers to keep their workplaces free of any known safety hazards and to follow all established safety regulations. Employers are expected to train employees in safety policies and to regularly inspect all tools and work areas to ensure their safety. Potential hazards must be labeled in some easily recognized way, such as by placing a red "caution" sign next to a hazardous object. Companies with 10 or more employees are also required to keep an injury log, with the exception of companies in industries with few known hazards. Many industries have additional safety requirements specific to that industry.
When OSHA receives a complaint about an alleged safety violation, it can send a compliance officer to conduct an inspection. If the inspection finds evidence of safety violations, OSHA will issue a citation requiring the company to fix the problem. OSHA also has the power to fine companies found to be in violation. Some employees are reluctant to report violations for fear of retaliation by their employer, so federal law provides protection for whistle-blowers.
The Department of Labor's Employee Law Guide lists a number of federal statutes protecting employees who report violations in safety standards. All employees are protected by OSHA regulations, but federal law also protects employees in the trucking, container, nuclear, asbestos, financial and railway industries, as well as workers who report violations in environmental or product safety regulations. Employers found to have retaliated against an employee whistle-blower can be forced to reinstate the employee with back wages, court costs and other expenses.
Retaliation is defined by the Department of Labor as any "adverse action" in response to the employee's safety complaint. An adverse action is anything that would negatively impact the employee's career. This can be something obvious, such as firing, demoting or disciplining the employee, or something less obvious, such as a reassignment to a dead-end project or informing other potential employers about the employee's actions to sabotage her career. If you believe you have been retaliated against for a safety complaint, contact OSHA for assistance.
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