John works as a member of the maintenance team in his building. One day he notices that cleaning chemicals are being stored in non-approved and non-secure containers in a storage closet adjacent to where the local daycare provider rents space. Based on his training, John thinks this is a violation of OSHA standards. When he raised the issue with his supervisor, he’s told that it’s not any of his business but John is still concerned. He wants to contact OSHA and complain but John’s wife is worried he’ll lose his job. Should John be worried?
What Happens When You Contact OSHA?
Federal OSHA has a specific process for how they handle incoming complaints which could differ slightly from how a state with an OSHA approved state plan may handle complaints. Typically when a complaint is received, several things are considered such as the severity of the complaint and the number of employees who could be exposed to the alleged hazard. Lower priority complaints will often be handled over the phone with the employer which results in a faster turnaround time than more serious complaints that must be handled through an on-site inspection.
The method in which a complaint is made also determines how complaints are handled. Complaints that are made over the phone or in person make it possible for the OSHA representative to ask questions and gather more complete information which can result in a faster response from OSHA. Complaints that are received in writing through the email or online complaint form can be a bit more difficult to evaluate and respond to if they don’t include enough information however, OSHA is more likely to perform and on-site inspection when they receive written complaints that are signed by the complainants.
Can Complaints Be Kept Anonymous?
Employees who file complaints have the right to anonymity, regardless of how the complaint was submitted. When an employee or employees submit a written and signed complaint to OSHA requesting an on-site visit but want to stay anonymous to their employer, they can do so and OSHA will not reveal their names. In addition, complaints can always be submitted anonymously irrespective of the method being used to submit the complaint.
Will OSHA Perform An On-Site Inspection?
It really depends on the situation. Imminent danger situations where there is a risk of death or serious injury to workers and immediately following any fatality or catastrophe in which three or more employees have been hospitalized are at the top of the priority list for conducting on-site inspections. Employee complaints and referrals come in third on the priority list with on-site inspections of high hazard industries, planned inspections and follow up inspections coming in last on the priority list.
In addition to this, when OSHA receives a written complaint that specifically requests an on-site investigation, the complaint must meet one of eight criteria before OSHA will conduct the inspection:
- A written, signed complaint by a current employee or employee representative with enough detail to enable OSHA to determine that a violation or danger likely exists that threatens physical harm or that an imminent danger exists;
- An allegation that physical harm has occurred as a result of the hazard and that it still exists;
- A report of an imminent danger;
- A complaint about a company in an industry covered by one of OSHA's local or national emphasis programs or a hazard targeted by one of these programs;
- Inadequate response from an employer who has received information on the hazard through a phone/fax investigation;
- A complaint against an employer with a past history of egregious, willful or failure-to-abate OSHA citations within the past three years;
- Referral from a whistleblower investigator; or
- Complaint at a facility scheduled for or already undergoing an OSHA inspection.
Contacting OSHA About Concerns
Workers are always encouraged to bring health and safety concerns to their employers first, giving them the opportunity to investigate and respond before contacting OSHA. But, in some cases employers may not be responsive to concerns and in other cases, workers may not feel safe raising concerns. In any case, OSHA will still accept a complaint regardless of whether it was brought to the employer first or not. One thing to remember is that there is a very short 30-day window for reporting violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act which is why OSHA encourages employees to file complaints as soon as possible after identifying a potential issue.
Can You Get Fired for Filing a Complaint?
Filing a legitimate complaint with OSHA is a federally protected activity which is covered under the Whistleblower Protection Provisions included in Section 11(c ) of the OSH Act. Now, not all employees are covered under these whistleblower laws. Only private-sector employees working in businesses affecting interstate commerce and those federal employees working for the U.S. Postal Service are covered under these specific protections.
So, how exactly do whistleblower laws protect employees? Great question!
Whistleblower laws prohibit employers from taking any adverse actions against an employee for filing a legitimate complaint such as (but not limited to) firing, laying off, demoting, denying a promotion, withholding benefits, harassing or intimidating the employee, blacklisting, reducing pay or hours or more subtle things like ostracizing the employee.
For example, let’s say that Mary reported a workplace safety issue to OSHA which resulted in an on-site inspection and several citations. The following day, Mary was called into her boss’s office and was told that she was being reassigned to a location two hours away. This would likely be considered retaliation.
Help for Complainants and Whistleblowers
OSHA provides help to those considering filing a complaint. Free online resources include FAQs and video resources. Workers can call OSHA directly and speak to an OSHA employee who can guide their decision-making and answer specific questions about reporting violations and worker protections from retaliation.