How Can I Report Health and Safety Concerns at Work?February 6, 2022
The best way to protect workers and avoid serious job-related illness and injuries is to be proactive about reporting safety problems. Although it is impossible to reduce the risk of workplace accidents entirely, speaking up about concerns allows them to be resolved before someone gets hurt.
This discussion explores procedures for reporting health and safety concerns, discuss why so many issues go unreported, and look at how to fight back against retaliation at work.
A Look at Recent Workplace Accident Statistics
According to recent data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were almost three million nonfatal workplace illnesses and injuries in 2020.
Totals for injuries and illnesses decreased or remained the same for most industries except the health care and social assistance jobs. Injuries and illness in those sectors rose more than 40 percent. Workers in hospitals, nursing and residential care facilities, ambulatory health care services, and social assistance all experienced an increase in illness and injuries in 2020.
Respiratory Illness among Health Care Workers Rose as COVID-19 Reached the United States
Although injuries were down overall from the previous year, illnesses nearly quadrupled to 544,600. Respiratory illnesses in particular rose a staggering 4,000, in part from exposure to the coronavirus. The first COVID-19 cases were reported in the United States in January 2020.
Hospitals and other care facilities experienced severe shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), especially gloves, medical masks, face shields, and N95 respirators, leaving workers caring for patients with COVID-19 more vulnerable to the highly contagious virus.
What to Do if You Notice a Dangerous Situation at Work
Whether you are aware of PPE shortages or have another safety concern at work, there are specific steps you must take to report the problem to your employer and the proper authorities.
Notify your employer. First, you should bring issue to your employer’s attention. Most companies do and should have specific procedures for reporting safety issues. Check your company handbook or employment contract for guidance.
Document the issue. It is also wise to gather proof of your allegations. If you can, take pictures of the problem or take steps to document the issue in another way. Ask any employees who witnessed the safety issue to document their experience in writing.
Contact a Workers’ Compensation lawyer. Some employers are more serious about worker safety than others. They uphold their duty to provide a safe work environment for every employee and act quickly when issues arise. Unfortunately, that is not the case for every job site.
A lawyer experienced in Workers’ Compensation is often the best resource for guidance on how to handle a safety issue at work and what to do if you encounter retaliation for filing a complaint. Look for a legal team with a proven track record of success resolving complex workplace injury cases in your community.
File a complaint with OSHA. If your concerns still go unresolved, you can report them directly to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). You or your lawyer has the right to file a confidential complaint and request an OSHA inspection of your workplace.
Share your concerns with OSHA via:
- In person
Visit the OSHA website for specific reporting instructions, or to print out a copy of the OSHA complaint form.
There are occasions in which a safety issue poses a risk of severe injury or death. In that case, if the worker has made their concerns known to the employer without resolution, and there is no time to OSHA to inspect the situation, the employee can refuse to work under the law.
Anyone who has been terminated or otherwise penalized for refusing to work under such conditions should reach out to an employment lawyer for guidance. No job is worth your health, your safety, or your life.
Why Workplace Safety Hazards Go Unreported
Unfortunately, many workplace health and safety violations go unreported every year for the following reasons:
Fear of punitive action. As patients with COVID-19 began flowing into doctors’ offices, urgent care clinics, and hospitals across the country, it became clear there was not nearly enough PPE available to protect health care workers.
Some workers faced backlash for expressing concerns about their safety. One landmark case from New Jersey Superior Court in Essex County involved a plaintiff who complained about COVID-19 related safety concerns and was fired soon after. The courts ruled the plaintiff could move forward with a whistleblower lawsuit against their employer under the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA).
Employees hold back because they fear what may happen if they speak out. Will they be harassed on the job? Will they be demoted or even fired? These are legitimate concerns. And for many workers, the possibility of losing their job and their income is just not worth the risk.
Pressure from colleagues. In some cases, there is an unspoken rule that employees should not report safety violations and accidents at work. This is especially true when multiple workers are responsible for safety lapses. That creates a pack mentality in which others are discouraged or even intimidated into keeping quiet. Rather than rocking the boat and creating tension on the job, the employee keeps their concerns to themself.
Unclear reporting procedures. In other cases, the employee is not quite sure how to report a safety problem or a near-miss accident. Every employer should provide a user-friendly, easily accessible system for reporting issues to management. They should also have a clear timetable for addressing safety concerns in a prompt and effective manner.
The reality is workers who know about dangerous conditions at work and do not report them are part of the problem. Who knows how many employees become ill or injured because of these preventable hazards?
Your Employer Cannot Retaliate for Reporting Safety Problems
Fortunately, whistleblower laws protect employees from retaliation for reporting safety risks and accidents. Retaliation is when an employer, through an administrator, manager, or supervisor, terminates a worker or takes any other type of adverse action against them for engaging in a protected activity. Reporting safety violations is one of the most common examples of a protected activity.
Other adverse actions include:
- Changing or reducing hours or pay
- Denying benefits
- Failing to hire or rehire
- Harassment or intimidation
- Interfering with one’s ability to obtain another job
- Making working conditions intolerable so that the employee quits
- Reassignment to a less desirable position
- Reporting or threatening to report an employee to immigration
What Is the Whistleblower Protection Program?
The OSHA Whistleblower Protection Program enforces the more than 20 different whistleblower statutes in place to protect the nation’s employees from retaliation for reporting violations.
How to File a Whistleblower Complaint
If you reported an activity protected by whistleblower protection laws and your employer found out and took an adverse action against you, you may have a valid whistleblower complaint. You can file a complaint easily with OSHA verbally, in writing, or online in any language.
After receiving your complaint, OSHA will investigate your claims. You cannot file a complaint anonymously, and you must be available when OSHA follows up or your case will be dismissed.
You should also consider contacting a Workers’ Compensation lawyer for assistance with your complaint and for comprehensive legal guidance on your case and your situation. You may have additional legal remedies available to receive compensation for wrongful termination, lost income, and other unlawful employer actions.
Baltimore Workers’ Compensation Lawyers at LeViness, Tolzman & Hamilton Protect the Rights of Workers
If you have concerns about your employer’s safety record or want to report violations, the Baltimore Workers’ Compensation lawyers at LeViness, Tolzman & Hamilton can help. We will review your case and ensure your rights are protected to fight retaliation and hold employers accountable for adverse actions against you. To schedule a free, confidential consultation, call us today at 844-556-4LAW (4529) or contact us online.
Located in Baltimore, we serve clients throughout Maryland.