“That doesn’t seem safe!” Employee Rights under OSHA

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is part of the Department of Labor and administers the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act), as well as numerous other safety and whistleblower laws.  OSHA also sets safety standards for various industries.  Because of OSHA, many employers have a general duty to prevent working conditions that pose a risk of serious and recognized harm.

The purpose of this article is to explain some of what OSHA protects, suggest some things you can do to protect your rights as an employee, and inform you about key things to keep in mind if you contact OSHA.

OSHA monitors things like whether employers maintain safe practices and keep records of workplace injuries and illnesses; whether employers provide free safety equipment where necessary; and whether employers inform their workers about hazards they might face on the job.

Almost all private sector employees are protected by OSHA or a similar agency.  Federal agencies are also subject to OSHA standards.  However, if you are a state or local government employee, OSHA does not cover you.  While a number of states have comparable OSHA-approved laws to fill that gap, Texas is not among them.  Instead, the Texas Health and Safety Code and Texas Labor Code provide some protections.

If you are concerned your employer is not complying with safety laws, you can submit a safety and health complaint to OSHA.  OSHA may then investigate and address the matter, either through an on-site inspection or other kind of investigation.  You can ask that OSHA not share your name as part of the complaint.

For OSHA to conduct an on-site inspection, a complaint has to meet one of eight criteria—probably the most important of which is that it is in writing, signed, and describes a danger that threatens physical harm, or that an imminent danger exists.  An imminent danger is one that could reasonably be expected to cause death or serious physical harm within a short time.  In general, it is a good idea to submit any OSHA complaint in writing if you are concerned an on-site inspection would be necessary to address the problem.

What if you have been or might be exposed to COVID-19 at work? This is still a murky area.  OSHA has provided non-binding guidance for employers about how to minimize the risk of infections.  OSHA standards also require that employees be given gloves, eye and face protection, and respiratory protection when job hazards warrant it.  However, any OSHA guidance and rules specific to COVID-19 are subject to change.  Still, if your employer is failing to take steps to protect employees from the risk of exposure to COVID-19, you can report that to OSHA.

What if your employer retaliated against you for complaining about an unsafe workplace? In that situation, you can file a retaliation complaint with OSHA.  Unlike a safety complaint, a retaliation complaint cannot be anonymous.  You may also be protected from retaliation for making a complaint of workplace violence.  Workplace violence is any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site.

As part of an investigation into a retaliation complaint, OSHA looks for evidence that (1) you raised a protected complaint about a safety or health issue; (2) the employer knew or suspected that; and (3) the employer took an adverse action against you because of that protected complaint.  Therefore, it is important that you cooperate with the investigation to provide evidence of retaliation.

If OSHA finds that you were retaliated against because of a protected safety complaint or because the employer believed that you made a protected safety complaint, it may order the employer to reinstate you (if you were fired), pay you back pay (if you suffered financial loss), or to do other things like change its policies.

There are two important limitations to an OSH Act retaliation complaint.  First, in order to ensure your complaint is investigated, you have to file it within 30 days of whenever you first learned you were being retaliated against.  Second, there is no “private right of action” for OSHA retaliation.  This means that any complaint can only go through the agency, and you would not be able to file a lawsuit independently.  However, if OSHA does not find in your favor, you may be able to appeal that decision to a regional solicitor.

If you are worried about an unsafe work environment or are concerned about retaliation for making a safety complaint, in addition to contacting OSHA you should consult with a Dallas Employment Attorney.

Contact Information