Workers have the right to report unsafe working conditions. Learn when you can refuse hazardous work and how to protect yourself 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 a workplace injury or illness severe enough to miss days from work.¹
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is an agency of the federal government that sets and enforces workplace safety standards.
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.
What To Do About Unsafe Working Conditions
There are potential hazards in any workplace, with some jobs more inherently dangerous than others. Many of the most dangerous workplaces are highly regulated under federal and state safety guidelines.
You have more options for dealing with unsafe work conditions in industries that are regulated or unionized.
Refusing to Work in Unsafe Conditions
You can always walk off any job site that you believe poses an imminent danger to your health and safety. That doesn’t mean you won’t just end up empty-handed and unemployed.
The U.S. Department of Labor states there is no right under OSHA that entitles a worker to walk off the job because of potentially unsafe working conditions.
However, there are provisions that allow a worker to refuse to work:
[O]ccasions might arise when an employee is confronted with a choice between not performing assigned tasks or subjecting himself to serious injury or death arising from a hazardous condition at the workplace. If the employee, with no reasonable alternative, refuses in good faith to expose himself to the dangerous condition, he would be protected against subsequent discrimination…
OSHA specifies that to legitimately refuse to work:
- The employee must believe they would be risking death or injury
- Any reasonable person would fear death or injury in the same circumstances
- The employee reported the hazard to the employer, who failed to correct the situation
OSHA also recommends that the employee remains at the worksite unless the employer tells them to leave. If the employee is fired in retaliation for refusing to work in a dangerous situation, they can report the retaliation to OSHA. The report must be made within 30 days of the reprisal.
Locally Reporting Dangerous Working 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 an 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 dangerous work environment as soon as they know it exists. They would rather correct an unsafe work practice than face the repercussions of an OSHA violation. Bring workplace hazards to your employer’s attention.
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 Safety Violation 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. (You might have recourse under state laws.)
On the other hand, if you’re reporting that your industrial employer refuses to provide adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) as required by federal law, 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 them to investigate your complaint.
OSHA will keep your name out of it when you ask for your complaint to 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 a certain number of 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.
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. Below we give the latest list of the top ten safety violations reported to OSHA.
Top 10 Work Safety Violations:
- Lack of fall protection on construction sites
- Hazard communication violations, lack of warning signs and labels
- Inadequate respiratory protection, like face masks
- Unsafe scaffolding on construction sites
- Unsafe use of ladders
- Control of hazardous energy
- Unsafe use of powered industrial trucks, like forklifts
- Lack of worker training about fall protection
- Inadequate eye and face protection
- Unsafe machinery and machine guarding
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 private sector industries.
You may not wear a hard hat to work every day, but you deserve protection. Sometimes employees accept bad work situations and do their jobs despite 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.
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. Your employer should give you the workers’ comp forms and instructions for filing your claim, or you can contact your state’s workers’ comp offices directly.
Telling your employer isn’t enough. You must file your workers’ compensation claim within a specified number of days, depending on your state’s deadlines.
You don’t receive any reward from OSHA for reporting an unsafe condition, but some states do pay a higher rate for workers’ 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 when they’ve 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 compensation to medical expenses and a portion of your lost wages. In a personal injury claim, you can pursue recovery of all your damages.
In a 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.
- There wasn’t enough time after the OSHA inspection to make corrections.
The courts may not accept these excuses for failing to correct an unsafe working environment, but your attorney will still have to prove your employer’s negligence was intentional.
Workers’ 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 workers’ comp subrogation. In most cases, the lawsuit award is so much larger than the workers’ comp benefits that the injured worker is much better off financially, even after reimbursing workers’ 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 working conditions, you’ll need legal advice from an employment attorney to get the compensation you deserve.
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 workers’ 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 on the job, 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. Most injury attorneys offer a free consultation. It costs nothing to find out what a good attorney can do for you.
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Unsafe Working Conditions Questions & Answers
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