OSHA Violations: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is an agency formed as a part of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. It is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Labor and was created to regulate health and safety conditions in the workplace.

Under the OSH Act, employers have the responsibility to provide a workplace environment that is free from unsafe or unhealthy conditions. Employees working for covered employers are protected under whistleblower protection laws from any negative actions taken against them by their employer for speaking out about safety or health concerns in the workplace.

Apart from workers’ rights protection, OSHA establishes regulations intended to maintain a safe and healthy environment in your workplace. Failure to correct an unsafe condition or health hazard, or to report such a condition, can lead to illness, injury or death. This is a primary reason why employees are afforded the protection of OSHA against adverse action for making such reports.

A safe work environment

OSHA statutes give employees the right to a safe work environment and to report or file a complaint about the health or safety hazards in their place of work. Employers for their part are required to meet certain standards including:

  • Comply with OSHA regulations and statutes.
  • Ensure that employees are equipped with the proper equipment for safe performance of their jobs .
  • Correct any cited violations of OSHA safety regulations.
  • Maintain records of all injuries and illnesses in the workplace.

An employee who reports an injury, illness or workplace violation of OSHA regulations is protected by the aforementioned whistleblower provisions from retaliation by their employer. Adverse action prohibited under these provisions includes discharge, denial of benefits, reduction in work hours, failure to hire or reinstate, blacklisting, intimidation or disciplinary action.

Who is covered by OSHA?

Most employees of private businesses in the 50 states and D.C. are under the auspices of OSHA or a program approved by OSHA. All federal agencies are covered under OSHA. State and local agencies are outside the coverage of OSHA, however, some states do provide protection via OSHA-approved programs. Those programs must meet minimal OSHA standards.

As an employee covered by OSHA, you have the right to request an OSHA inspection and speak with the inspector, access records of any test results performed to identify hazardous workplace conditions, report an illness or injury and receive copies of medical records.

Reporting a violation

To file a complaint with OSHA regarding a safety hazard in your workplace, contact your local OSHA office. All complaints are kept confidential by OSHA, so be sure to provide all pertinent contact information so that your local OSHA representative may reach you for any additional information that may be needed to evaluate the complaint.

In situations where there is immediate risk of injury or death, an employee also has the legal right to refuse to work until the condition is corrected.

Filing a complaint of retaliation

If you believe you have been the subject of retaliation for exercising your rights as a worker, you have thirty days in which to file a complaint. OSH Act (Section 11(c)) protects you against any adverse action taken against you by your employer. You can file your complaint online, by phone, fax, or letter.

There are 22 federal whistleblower statutes covering worker discrimination, each with a specified time limit in which a complaint must be filed. A list of these individual laws and their respective timeframes can be found here.

For more details about OSHA Whistleblower investigations, you can download a manual from the Department of Labor website. For more information about OSHA statutes and how they may apply to you and your workplace, contact your regional labor liaison.