Today, most workers are considered to be “at-will” employees. This essentially means that an employer can terminate an employee at any time for any legal reason. However, there are still some situations where an employer cannot fire someone because the employee is protected. Wrongful termination occurs when the firing of an employee violates state or federal law.
Generally speaking, an employer cannot terminate an employee because of the following:
- Your race, ethnicity, gender, disabilities, pregnancy, or other protected status under state and federal civil rights laws;
- You engaged in whistleblowing, which is when you report legal violations to a government agency or company leadership); and/or
- You refused to engage in illegal activities in the workplace.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is a federal agency that oversees workplace safety. OSHA sets safety standards that employers must follow in the workplace. Federal law clearly recognizes that it is illegal for an employer to fire someone for reporting OSHA violations.
If you believe that there has been an OSHA violation at your job, you have a legal right to report the violation and request OSHA inspect your workplace. You do not need to know if a specific OSHA standard was violated — simply suspecting that there is a violation or safety hazard is enough to file an OSHA complaint.
To complete this process, you would take the following steps:
- File a complaint as soon as you notice the violation or hazard. OSHA can only cite a business for violations that are currently active or existed within the prior 6 months;
- Complete the OSHA complaint form online, by fax, or through mail and submit it to an OSHA Area or Regional office. Provide your contact information in the complaint; and
- Contact your local OSHA office about any questions regarding the complaint, especially if there is an immediate emergency situation that relates to the OSHA violation.
After the complaint if filed, OSHA will determine whether there needs to be an investigation and carry one out if necessary. An OSHA representative may also contact you for further information.
What Steps should I Take if I have been Terminated after Reporting an OSHA Violation in the Workplace?
1.) Contact OSHA
While OSHA will keep your report confidential, your employer may still find out about your OSHA complaint. If you are terminated, demoted, or suffer any other adverse employment action because you filed an OSHA complaint, you may have additional legal remedies based on wrongful termination.
However, you must file another complaint with OSHA reporting your retaliatory discharge. Once reported, OSHA’s agents will investigate your claims and help resolve the dispute.
2.) Prepare the appropriate paperwork
You must complete either an online or written whistleblower complaint form and submit it to OSHA. This form requires detailed information, including:
- Your date of hire and termination;
- The name of the person who retaliated against you;
- The type of adverse employment action (such as termination or demotion);
- The dates of retaliation;
- The reasons (if any) that your employer provided for your termination;
- The actual reasons you believe you were terminated or penalized; and
- Any other pertinent information about your OSHA complaint and the retaliatory discharge.
Additionally, you should provide evidence supporting your claims and damages, such as witness information, pay stubs, written communication, or any other documents supporting your claim.
For most claims, you must file a wrongful termination complaint within 30 days. However, some claims have longer filing deadlines depending on the specific OSHA. OSHA publishes a list of filing deadlines on its website. You also may have a claim under both state and federal law, depending on your state’s laws and situation surrounding your termination.
3.) Participate in the OSHA investigation process
After OSHA receives your wrongful termination complaint, the agency will begin to process your claim. You should receive a letter confirming your complaint that includes a case number. Keep in mind that your employer will also receive notice of your complaint.
Also, be aware that OSHA does not perform a full investigation of every complaint. A full investigation will only occur if you file a complaint before the filing deadline, there appears to be evidence of retaliatory discharge, and your claim is actually covered by OSHA.
If you are eligible, OSHA agents will collect documents, testimony, and other evidence. The investigation may take several weeks or months, depending on the complexity of your case. An OSHA agent may also decide to interview you and others about your claim in person, through email, or over the phone.
After reviewing all the relevant evidence, OSHA will determine whether a whistleblowing violation has occurred. Sometimes, the agency will settle your dispute with your employer. This could include remedies like job reinstatement or money damages.
Other times, OSHA will file a lawsuit on your behalf demanding compensation. Regardless of the outcome, if you disagree with OSHA’s decision you have the right to appeal.
You cannot file a personal lawsuit under OSHA laws. Only OSHA can file federal lawsuits under this law. However, keep in mind that you may have other causes of action under state and federal employment law. For example, if your termination can also be linked to discrimination based on race, gender, or any other protected category, you may have additional causes of action.
However, be advised that many of these claims have strict filing procedures. For example, the first step in most federal discrimination cases is to file an administrative complaint. If you do not file this complaint within the correct time frame, your case may be automatically dismissed.
It’s probably in your best interest to hire an attorney when dealing with a wrongful termination matter. Wrongful termination claims typically require a detailed factual and legal analysis. OSHA filing rules and procedures will need to be followed.
You also may have claims under multiple laws, and a single mistake can result in the dismissal of your case. A local employment attorney can help you understand your rights, file the appropriate documents, and build a persuasive case against your former employer.