Everybody deserves a safe workplace, and our workplaces cannot be safe when workers do not feel comfortable reporting safety issues to their supervisors or federal regulators. Two recent complaints filed by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) demonstrate the importance of protections for workers who report workplace safety hazards.
In the complaints, OSHA accused two Houston companies of taking blatant retaliatory actions against employees whose concerns about safety hazards had gone ignored by their supervisors, and who thus chose to report the problems to OSHA. The companies will now have to answer for their actions in federal court.
These workplace retaliation cases underscore the importance of whistleblower protections in maintaining safe and healthy workplaces. Our legal regime for ensuring workplace safety relies on average workers being able to raise concerns about safety risks with OSHA when their employers fail to take corrective action. When employers lash out at such employees, instead of taking their concerns seriously, we are all less safe. By bringing these two cases, OSHA demonstrated its continuing commitment to ensuring that workers are protected from this type of unlawful retaliation.
Eustis Cable Enterprises
One of the complaints filed was against Eustis Cable Enterprises. The employee in that case had complained to his supervisor that he should not be operating a forklift because he did not have a license. He also raised concerns about propane tanks that were not properly secured.
When his warnings went unheeded by the company, he contacted OSHA to make the agency aware of the safety risks at his workplace. OSHA informed Eustis Cable of the concerns that the employee had raised, and an hour later the employee was fired.
Continuum Integrated Health Services
The other case OSHA brought is against Continuum Integrated Health Services, Inc. In that case, an employee reported to OSHA that Continuum had an emergency exit that was blocked by another locked door.
After OSHA contacted Continuum about the report, the company’s CEO called the employee into her office and asked if the company would be dealing with any other complaints to OSHA. A few days later the CEO caught the employee documenting their previous meeting and confronted her about it. The employee admitted to having contacted OSHA, and the CEO fired her.
Executives as Defendants
One interesting aspect that ties these two cases together is that, not only did OSHA file a lawsuit against the companies in question, but it also named the individual executives who made the decision to fire the employees as defendants. These individuals will face personal liability for their actions, even though they acted within their capacity as agents of the companies. This creates an added incentive for executives to abide by the anti-retaliation laws that protect whistleblowers who report concerns about workplace safety.
The Occupational Health and Safety Act
Workers are protected against retaliation when they engage in protected activity under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. The Act protects workers who raise concerns about workplace health and safety issues from retaliation by their employers. An employee is protected whether she raises concerns with OSHA itself or internally with her supervisors. If an employee takes such actions – and her employer then retaliates against her by firing her, demoting her, cutting her pay, or some other action aimed at punishing her for raising safety concerns – the employer has violated the Act and is liable to the employee for any damages she suffers.
Employees seeking to bring a retaliation claim against their employer under the Act must act quickly. Such claims have an unusually short statute of limitations of just 30 days. If you fail to file a claim with OSHA within that 30-day window, the claim is not actionable. Employees who file within the 30-day deadline must do so with OSHA, which then investigates the employee’s allegations and decides whether to take any action, including the filing of a lawsuit, as in the two cases discussed above.
If you have been retaliated against for reporting workplace safety or health concerns, consult an attorney with experience in whistleblower and workplace retaliation issues, particular those pertaining to OSHA.