“OSHA” is the abbreviation for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It is an agency from the Department of Labor responsible for ensuring safety at work for all employees, as well as a healthy work environment. OSHA’s mission is to prevent work-related injuries, illnesses, and deaths. OSHA requires that employers provide their employees with working conditions that are free of known dangers.
Wrongful termination, or unlawful termination, is an employment law term that refers to when an employer fires an employee for illegal or unauthorized reasons. These include reasons that violate federal, state, or local laws, go against public policy, or breach the terms of an employment agreement. Wrongful termination can also occur when an employer fires an employee who has refused to obey work instructions that are illegal. This could include unlawful activities like skirting safety regulations for a specific job task, or asking them to commit even more serious crimes, such as a felony offense.
One other example of how an employee can be unlawfully terminated is when an employer ignores their own company’s policies regarding the termination process. An example of this would be if the employer does not follow the proper protocols when releasing the employee from their position.
Today, most workers are considered to be “at-will” employees. What this generally means is that an employer can terminate an employee at any time, for any legal reason, or for no reason at all. Generally speaking, an employer cannot terminate an employee because of the following reasons:
- Race, ethnicity, gender, disabilities, pregnancy, or other protected status under state and federal civil rights laws;
- Employee engagement in whistleblowing, or, when the employee reports legal violations to a government agency or company leadership; and/or
- The employee refused to engage in illegal activities in the workplace.
Federal law clearly recognizes that it is illegal for an employer to terminate an employee for reporting employer OSHA violations.
How Can I Report an OSHA Violation?
First, it is important to understand who is regulated by OSHA and when they conduct their inspections. OSHA is responsible for making sure its standards are being met by businesses. The government schedules OSHA inspections as follows:
- Programmed Inspections: Regularly scheduled inspections that are in high hazard industries, such as oil and gas;
- Investigation of Imminent Dangers: Any condition or practices that could reasonably be expected to cause death or serious physical harm to employees;
- Investigation of Complaints: OSHA has a responsibility to investigate complaints made by employees or cases referred to them; and
- Faulty and Catastrophe Investigations: Any work-related incident that results in the death of an employee, or the in-patient hospitalization of three or more employees must be investigated.
If you believe that there has been an OSHA violation at your job, or you yourself have experienced an OSHA violation, you have a legal right to report the violation and request OSHA inspect your workplace. It is not required that you 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 file an OSHA complaint, you would take the following steps:
- File a complaint as soon as you notice the violation or hazard. This is due to the fact that OSHA can only cite a business for violations that are currently active or existed within the prior six 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 has been filed, OSHA will determine whether there needs to be an investigation. If an investigation is necessary, they will conduct the investigation and proceed accordingly. 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?
Your first step if you were fired after reporting safety violations is to 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 a wrongful termination claim.
However, it is imperative to note that you must file another, separate complaint with OSHA reporting your retaliatory discharge. Once reported, OSHA’s agents will investigate your claims and help resolve the dispute.
Next, you will need to 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 specific type of adverse employment action taken against you, 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 relevant information about your OSHA complaint, as well as the retaliatory discharge.
Additionally, you should provide evidence supporting your claims and damages. Examples of sufficient evidence could include:
- Witness information and statements;
- Copies of your pay stubs;
- Copies of all written communication; and/or
- Any other documents supporting your claim.
Generally speaking, you must file a wrongful termination complaint within thirty days of the incident. However, some claims have longer filing deadlines depending on the specific OSHA. OSHA publishes a list of filing deadlines on its website. You could also have a claim under both state and federal law, depending on your state’s laws and the circumstances surrounding your termination.
Finally, you will need to participate in the OSHA investigation to the best of your ability. Once OSHA has received 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. You should 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 your case is eligible, OSHA agents will collect documents, testimony, and other evidence. The investigation could take several weeks or months. An OSHA agent may also interview you and others about your claim in person, through email, or over the phone.
Once they have reviewed all of the relevant evidence, OSHA will determine whether a whistleblowing violation has occurred. Sometimes, the agency will settle your dispute with your employer. A typical settlement could include remedies such as job reinstatement, or monetary 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.
Can I File a Lawsuit Against my Employer for OSHA Wrongful Termination?
Under OSHA laws, no, you cannot file a personal lawsuit against your employer for OSHA wrongful termination. Only OSHA themselves may file federal lawsuits under this law. However, you could have other causes of action under state and federal employment law. An example of this would be if your termination can also be linked to discrimination based on race, gender, or any other protected category.
However, it is important to remember that many of these claims have strict filing procedures. Generally speaking, 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.
Do I Need to Consult an Attorney to File a Wrongful Termination Complaint with OSHA?
If you are needing to file a wrongful termination complaint with OSHA, you should consult with a skilled and knowledgeable employment lawyer. An experienced and local employment lawyer will be aware of all applicable laws, and can guide you through the complaint filing process. The attorney will also represent you in court. As such, you may choose to hire an attorney before even reporting an employer’s violation to OSHA.