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All About OSHA and Workplace Safety

Workplace safety is an issue that many employees may take for granted. Working in an office building may seem like a tame and safe affair that doesn’t feature too many obvious safety hazards. Similarly, a kitchen may regularly discount or bend certain safety rules for the sake of greater day-to-day convenience. Unfortunately, many of these situations are only realized for the dangers they are when workers fleeing some accident discover that their fire doors trap them inside or their emergency exits are blocked by pallets.

In order to ensure that these grim situations occur as infrequently as possible and workers are protected on the job, the U.S. Department of Labor uses the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to create and maintain safety standards for workplaces nationwide. Far from being a niche organization that only certifies construction sites and industrial factories, OSHA operates in workplaces from steel mills to commercial offices.

What is OSHA?

OSHA was created as a formal organization in 1970 with the enactment of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. The stated purpose of OSHA is “to ensure safe and healthful working conditions for workers” by creating and enforcing safety standards, providing training services, establishing outreach programs, and offering assistance to U.S. businesses.

The Act that created OSHA also gives the organization jurisdiction in most workplaces. In addition to being able to make inspections and issue consequences in all 50 states, OSHA also has jurisdiction over workplaces in American Samoa, Guam, The Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, The U.S. Virgin Islands, Wake Island, and Washington D.C. Certain supplemental laws like the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act also grants OSHA jurisdiction in places like oil rigs or offshore fishing vessels.

Some of OSHA’s regulations are structural, determining how foundational structures like ramps, stairs, or cargo elevators must be constructed. Other safety standards target personnel by requiring certain protective equipment such as rubber gloves or hard hats in certain workspaces. OSHA can dictate where emergency exits are placed, how many are needed, and how the area around these exits must be maintained. 

Since OSHA is responsible for overseeing more than 7 million workplaces, the agency has to prioritize which areas they investigate and in what order. In general, OSHA follows a six-tiered priority list. From highest to lowest OSHA’s priorities are:

  1. Imminent Danger Situations: Serious physical injury or death is highly likely to occur
  2. Severe Illness and Injuries: A work-related hospitalization or amputation has occurred
  3. Worker Complaints: An individual in a workplace has reported a violation of OSHA safety regulations and a hazard is present
  4. Outside Reports: A non-employee has reported a dangerous workplace that is in violation of OSHA workplace standards
  5. High-Injury Industries: Investigations of violation-prone sectors of industries
  6. Follow-up Investigations: Investigations confirming compliance with previous findings

If OSHA does find a violation, the organization can assess fines on a per-violation basis. Companies that have repeatedly been fined for the same safety violations will be fined increasing amounts, quickly jumping to tenfold the initial fine per repeat violation. In extreme cases where a workplace poses an imminent danger to workers, OSHA may ask the courts to intervene and stop work at an unsafe jobsite until safe conditions for the workers are restored.

How Can an Employee Report Unsafe Practices?

In addition to conducting inspections and fining companies, OSHA is also tasked with protecting the rights of workers. OSHA enforces a worker’s right to:

  • Information and training about the hazards, occupational diseases, and OSHA standards of a workplace in a language that they can understand.
  • Review records of injuries and illnesses that have occurred in the workplace.
  • Work in safe conditions without threat of serious harm 

The most important right that OSHA protects is a worker’s right to request an inspection from the organization to review serious hazards or violations that they believe exists in their workplace. Included in this right to report is also the right to be anonymous in their reporting and the right to be protected from retaliatory efforts from the company caused by their reporting. Employees who exercise these rights to report unsafe working conditions are sometimes referred to as whistleblowers

A whistleblower is any employee who reports their own workplace for violating some law. Not every whistleblower is reporting a violation of OSHA safety regulations, but every employee reporting a violation of OSHA standards can attempt to seek protection under whistleblower laws. Protection for whistleblowers from retaliation includes defense from employers who:

  • Create an intolerable workplace until a whistleblower quits (constructive discharge)
  • Demote whistleblowers
  • Deny benefits to whistleblowers
  • Deny overtime compensation or promotions to whistleblowers
  • Fire or layoff whistleblowers
  • Reassign whistleblowers to less desirable positions
  • Reduce the hours or negatively change the pay of whistleblowers
  • Unfairly discipline whistleblowers

For employees who want to report either initial OSHA violations or subsequent retaliation against a whistleblower, the first step is reaching out to OSHA and filing a complaint. From that point, an Administrative Law Judge will be appointed to manage the case and the process will move forward very similarly to a lawsuit.

Once the case reaches the hearing stage, the whistleblower will have the opportunity to testify about their observations and submit any relevant evidence to support their claims. Once the evidence has been submitted and both sides have made their points, a verdict will be rendered in favor of either the company or the whistleblower.

What to do if You Have Been Denied The Opportunity to Report Unsafe Conditions

If you have been unable to report unsafe working conditions, whether due to intimidation by an employer or because the information about how to report was not provided to you, you may be able to file a lawsuit in order to seek justice for the losses that you have suffered. By demonstrating the ways in which you have been threatened with or are actively suffering from retaliation, you may be able to receive compensation for your injuries. The best way to prevail in your lawsuit is with an Employment Law attorney.

An experienced Employment Law attorney can zealously advocate on your behalf in order to get you the best possible outcome for your case. Using their legal expertise, trial tactics, and expert witnesses, your Employment Law attorney will be able to gather evidence of your mistreatments such as email records and witness testimony and present that information in the most compelling way for your case.

Don’t wait, contact AAL today and begin your journey to justice.

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