Employers have a duty to make their workplaces reasonably safe for their workers. Accidents can happen anywhere, and some types of work are more dangerous than others, but no one should have to work in a place filled with unreasonable risks of injury. Workers have the right to report safety hazards at work either to their employer or to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency that enforces federal safety standards in the workplace.
Unfortunately, many workers are afraid to exercise this right because they fear retaliation from their employers.
In fact, this kind of retaliation is illegal. California and federal laws prohibit employers from taking adverse work action against an employee who reports a safety hazard. Prohibited actions include demoting, disciplining, reducing the employee's hours or terminating the employee's job in retaliation for reporting the hazard.
If an employer takes any of these actions against the employee in retaliation for a hazard report, the employee has 30 days to file a complaint with the local OSHA office. If an OSHA investigator finds the employer broke the law, the agency seeks to remedy the situation with the employer. If that doesn't work, OSHA may file a lawsuit against the employer on behalf of the employee.
For workers, the difficult part in these cases is proving that the employer's reason for the action was illegal retaliation, and not some legitimate business reason. For this reason, documentation is very important to these cases. Employers who report a safety hazard should keep notes, talk to others and get as much of a paper trail as they can before and after reporting, just in case they need to show what really happened.
An employment law attorney with experience in wrongful termination and whistleblower retaliation can help workers understand their rights and the ways to gather documentation. A lawyer can advise workers of their rights and argue on their behalf in hearings and beyond.