Employers have a legal responsibility to ensure a safe working environment. Federal agencies with different priorities set the guidelines for and enforce workplace safety. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration administers the guidelines to ensure your workplace is free from physical injury and illness hazards, while the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission protects certain classes of people from hostile work environments, harassment and discrimination. When complaints fall on deaf ears, workplace safety issues usually end up in court in lawsuits brought by federal agencies or employees.
Workers' compensation, managed at the state level, offers a no-fault insurance coverage program for employee injuries that occur at work. Because of the no-fault system, an employee usually doesn't have the right to sue an employer for a work-related injury, since she can receive medical treatment, disability payments, permanent settlement awards, death benefits and even training for a new job if she can no longer can do the old one. But lawyers can pursue a lawsuit if an employer intentionally neglects to maintain safe working conditions.
Workplace Safety Complaint Retaliation
OSHA not only safeguards employee safety in the workplace, it backs them up when they file complaints for safety violations to the organization. Employers cannot retaliate against a worker for making a complaint to OSHA for safety reasons. When they do, OSHA may take them to task and bring a lawsuit on behalf of the whistleblowing employee. Employees can receive back wages and expenses in such cases.
Hostile Work Environment
Along with OSHA, EEOC has a track record of bringing lawsuits on behalf of employees against businesses or companies that refuse to abide by safe working conditions guidelines. Hostile work environments are not only unsafe for the victims of the hostility, but for other workers as well. Employers that refused to stop pervasive racial hostility, for example, have been served with punitive lawsuits that required them to pay former employees back wages and damages.
Besides ensuring a hostile-free work environment, the EEOC protects employees from harassment based on discrimination of protected classes. When employers fail to prevent ongoing harassment by its employees against people of color, from a different country, those with a disability or over 40, after an investigation and lack of response from the employer, the EEOC might file a lawsuit. Harassment is also against the law because of sex, pregnancy or veteran status.
Employers have both legal and moral obligations to complete their due diligence to protect employees and ensure a safe and healthy workplace. In hazardous working conditions such as when a person works at a manufacturing plant, in construction or for a utility company, for example, employers must equip employees with safety gear to protect them from illness or injury. They also must provide safety training when working with machinery and personal protection equipment. Beyond safe physical working conditions, employers also have a responsibility to provide a work environment free of sexual harassment or discrimination.
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- U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration: OSHA Regional News Release
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- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Harassment
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