Filing Complaints and Getting Injury Compensation for Unsafe Working Conditions

Learn how to report unsafe working conditions to OSHA and how to get the compensation you deserve if you’re hurt on the job.

Figures from the United States Labor Department show that every day an average of 14 workers are killed on the job, and more than 2,500 Americans sustain workplace injuries or illness severe enough to miss days from work.¹

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is a federal agency that sets and enforces workplace safety regulations.

Congress empowers OSHA to identify and correct unsafe work practices and dangerous conditions.

OSHA inspects more than 30,000 workplaces each year, with almost two-thirds of those inspections prompted by worker complaints, reported injuries, and referrals from other agencies.²

Employees have a right to protect themselves from unsafe working conditions, and to receive financial compensation for workplace injuries. This guide can help.

Top 10 Work Safety Violations in America

Dangerous conditions exist in almost any workplace and any industry. No matter if you work in an office, coal mine, warehouse, farm, or restaurant, you have the right to be as safe as possible while on the job.

Almost every American industry is required to follow OSHA safety rules, including regulations that require safety training for many types of workers.

Here’s the latest list of the top ten safety violations reported to OSHA:

  1. Lack of fall protection on construction sites
  2. Hazard communication violations, lack of warning signs and labels
  3. Unsafe scaffolding on construction sites
  4. Inadequate respiratory protection, like face masks
  5. Control of hazardous energy
  6. Unsafe use of ladders
  7. Unsafe use of powered industrial trucks, like forklifts
  8. Unsafe Machinery and Machine Guarding
  9. Lack of worker training about fall protection
  10. Unsafe electrical wiring methods, components, and equipment

Remember, this list is only the most frequently reported safety violations. There are many more safety regulations violated every day. Some are related to construction jobs, but many are violations across all types of industries.

You may not wear a hard hat to work every day, but you deserve protection from unsafe work conditions. Sometimes employees accept bad work situations and do their jobs despite the unsafe work practices.

Whether out of fear of retaliation, being harassed by co-workers, or suffering some other indignity, some people keep quiet. That may seem like the easiest solution, but keeping quiet only prolongs the danger.

Every worker has a right to report workplace safety hazards without fear of being harassed or getting fired.

Who to Call About Unsafe Work Conditions

There are good reasons to consider other avenues to report workplace safety violations before deciding that a formal OSHA complaint is the way to go.

You may get faster results with local reporting, especially if you’re reporting a safety hazard that poses immediate danger to you or others.

The reality is that OSHA has limited personnel available to conduct unplanned inspections. Moreover, while OSHA covers many industries in many states, not every state is covered.

Notify your employer:  It’s your employer’s legal responsibility to maintain a safe work environment, regardless of the industry. Discuss your concerns with your employer or supervisor. It’s possible your employer isn’t aware of the dangerous condition.

If you work for a sub-contractor, your employer should address safety issues with the general contractor or property owner.

Most employers want to correct a danger as soon as they know it exists. They would rather correct an unsafe work practice than face the repercussions of an OSHA violation.

Call your Union: This may be the best place to start if you belong to a worker’s union. Your union representatives know how to negotiate with the company bosses about health and safety issues and will protect you from retaliation by the employer.

Contact your state agency: Twenty-six states have OSHA-approved plans to cover both state and private workers. Six more jurisdictions have plans that only cover state government workers.

Select your state from this Office of State Programs (OSP) map of OSHA-approved agencies.

Filing a Complaint with OSHA

Many workers don’t know how to report unsafe working conditions. They question whether contacting OSHA can help and wonder if their employer can find out who made the complaint.

To protect workers’ confidentiality, OSHA accepts anonymous complaints.

There are a few steps to filing an OSHA complaint:

Step One: Addressing the unsafe condition

Before contacting OSHA, try to resolve the safety hazard by notifying your employer, either directly or through your local union representative. You may also reach out to the OSHA-approved state agency governing your workplace.

It’s time to file a complaint with OSHA when:

  • You’re afraid of retaliation if you report unsafe work conditions to your employer
  • You’ve told your employer, and the unsafe working conditions haven’t improved
  • You don’t belong to a union
  • Your workplace isn’t covered by an OSHA-approved state agency

OSHA’s mandate is to assist employers in maintaining a safe workplace, but OSHA won’t hesitate to put the hammer down on non-compliant companies when necessary.

Employers who fail to cooperate may be subject to substantial fines and penalties, and could have their business shut down until the dangerous condition is corrected.

Step Two: Filing an OSHA complaint

If your employer does not attempt to correct a dangerous workplace condition, then you can contact OSHA and begin the formal complaint process. OSHA has ten regional offices throughout the country.

Use this map of OSHA Offices by State for contact information.

Speak to an OSHA representative before filing your complaint to make sure the working conditions in your situation fall under OSHA regulations. Not every workplace issue is subject to federal regulations.

For example, there aren’t regulations for indoor temperatures in offices, so if your complaint is about the air conditioning settings at your office, OSHA can’t help you.

On the other hand, if you’re reporting dangerously unsafe work conditions, OSHA may intervene immediately.

When you fill out a formal OSHA complaint form, describe the hazardous working conditions and give any other information you think will help OSHA identify the problem.

You don’t have to cite an OSHA rule or regulation for OSHA to investigate your complaint.

OSHA will keep your name out of it when you ask for your complaint be kept anonymous.

Step Three: The OSHA investigation

OSHA begins an investigation based on your allegations of a dangerous workplace condition or what you believe is an unsafe work practice. They probably won’t keep you updated on the status of their investigation.

In many cases, the investigator won’t reveal that a complaint was filed. The OSHA investigator’s primary concern is the existence of an unsafe work practice or dangerous working condition, not who prompted the investigation.

Depending on the severity of the alleged safety violation, OSHA has the right to conduct an on-site investigation as soon as they receive your complaint. However, in most situations, the OSHA investigator assigned to the case will first contact your employer and discuss the alleged hazardous condition.

The investigator’s inquiry to the employer is based on the facts you listed in your complaint. Your employer must respond to the inquiry within so many days. OSHA then sends you a copy of your employer’s response.

If you’re not satisfied with the employer’s response, you can ask OSHA to make an onsite inspection at your workplace.

Compensation for Your Workplace Injury

When you’re injured at work, you’re entitled to workers’ compensation benefits, whether or not OSHA investigates a safety violation.

You must notify your employer as soon as possible after an on-the-job injury. Telling your employer isn’t enough. You must file your worker’s compensation claim within a specified number of days, depending on your state’s deadlines.

Your employer should give you the worker’s comp forms and instructions for filing your claim, or you can contact your state’s workers comp offices directly.

You don’t receive any reward from OSHA for reporting an unsafe condition, but some states do pay a higher rate for worker’s comp wage replacement and disability settlements if you’re injured because of a verified OSHA safety violation.

Your workers’ comp rules will depend on the state where you work. Find yours with this map of State Worker’s Compensation Offices.

Under state and federal workers’ comp laws, an injured worker may receive payment for medical bills, out-of-pocket expenses (medications, bandages, crutches, etc.), and about two-thirds of wages lost during treatment and recovery. Workers’ comp does not pay for pain and suffering.

When You Can Sue Your Employer

Under workers’ compensation laws, most employees aren’t allowed to sue their employer. With workers’ comp insurance, you don’t have to prove your employer did anything wrong to collect benefits. The trade-off is your employer is protected from lawsuits.

There’s an exception to every rule, and the exception for injured workers is the ability to sue your employer outside of worker’s comp when the employer has been outrageously negligent or showed a complete disregard for employee safety.

Workplace injury lawsuits are complicated. If you’ve been injured because of unsafe work conditions, contact an experienced personal injury attorney to find out your best compensation options.  

Workers’ comp limits your financial compensation to medical bills and a portion of your lost wages. In a civil lawsuit, your attorney can demand compensation for:

  • All medical expenses
  • All lost wages
  • Loss of future income
  • Replacement services
  • Consortium claims by your family
  • Pain and suffering

The courts often award punitive damages to injured workers when the company’s negligence was particularly horrible. Punitive damages are meant to punish negligent companies and deter other companies from similar violations.

Punitive awards to injured workers, or families of deceased workers, can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Nothing Says Negligence Like an OSHA Violation

After filing a lawsuit against your employer, you and your attorney will have to prove the employer was negligent, meaning the employer did something wrong or failed to act responsibly to protect employees from harm.

If your employer ignored an OSHA citation to correct a safety violation and you were injured because of it, that will help your case. You’ll still need to prove that the failure to comply rises to a level of gross negligence or a wanton disregard for your safety.

Strong evidence supporting intentional negligence is vital to a successful lawsuit against your employer. The law allows employers to argue that the safety violations weren’t intentional negligence because:

  • The employer wanted to correct the OSHA violation but didn’t have enough money.
  • The employer has proof that it was the landlord’s duty to take corrective action.
  • The employer was in the process of selling the business, and the duty to take corrective measures was under negotiation.

The courts may not accept these excuses for not taking corrective measures, but your attorney will still have to prove your employer’s negligence was intentional.

Worker’s Compensation Subrogation

Subrogation is a fancy legal term for reimbursement or paying back. Your lawsuit can take months or years before settling or going to trial. In the meantime, you’ll be collecting workers’ compensation wage benefits, and your medical bills will be paid.

By law, when an injured employee wins a lawsuit for those same injuries, the money paid out by workers’ comp must be paid back.

Talk to your attorney about worker’s comp subrogation. In most cases, the lawsuit award is so much larger than the worker’s comp benefits that the injured worker is much better off financially, even after reimbursing worker’s comp and paying attorney fees.

Attorneys Can Increase Your Compensation

If you’ve been injured on the job, or your loved one died from a workplace injury caused by unsafe work conditions, you’ll need a skilled personal injury attorney to win a lawsuit against the employer.

Workplace injury lawsuits are complicated, and you can bet the employer will have an army of corporate lawyers to defend against your claims.

You won’t have to pay your attorney up front. Reputable personal injury attorneys typically fight for injured workers like you on a contingency fee basis, meaning they don’t get paid unless you win your case.

Some of the things your attorney may do to support your case are:

  • Gather evidence of the dangerous condition (photographs, videos, etc.)
  • Take sworn depositions of coworkers also exposed to the unsafe working condition
  • Take sworn depositions of your employer and management staff
  • Take the sworn deposition of the OSHA investigator
  • Subpoena records from your employer and OSHA documenting violations

Maybe you’re on the fence about a lawsuit or have no interest in suing your employer. An attorney can still help you with your worker’s compensation claim.

Sure, you can handle your own workers’ comp claim if you only suffered minor injuries and expect to return to work soon.

However, if you’ve been seriously injured, especially if you may be partially or totally disabled, don’t trust the workers’ comp insurance company to pay the full value of your claim. Insurance companies are notorious for wage replacement errors, and those mistakes won’t be in your favor.

There’s too much at stake to rely on the insurance company for your financial well-being. It costs nothing to find out what a good attorney can do for you.

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Unsafe Work Conditions Questions & Answers