Businesses are required under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) to provide a safe working environment for their employees. Generally, OSHA protects all employees regardless of title or classification. But it does not protect those who are self-employed or who work for state or local government. New Jersey has its own laws that protect those employees.
Under OSHA, an employer must keep the workplace, which includes the physical office and any location outside of the office where employees are sent to work, such as a construction site, free from “recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” Owners or managers also must examine workplace conditions regularly to make sure they conform to OSHA standards and eliminate dangerous hazards. The law covers a wide variety of hazards, whether caused by unsafe conditions or unsafe working practices.
For example, OSHA requires employers to keep floors clean and dry, maintain proper ventilation, provide ventilators or other guards from dust or fumes when ventilation is not possible, and prevent exposure to infectious diseases or harmful chemicals. Also, they must provide tools and equipment that are in safe working condition, put guards and safety protections on dangerous machines, and provide adequate training for dangerous jobs. Personal protective equipment generally must be provided free to employees. Finally, businesses must display signs advising employees of potential hazards, appropriate work activities, and of their rights under OSHA.
The hazards that fall under OSHA are obviously dangerous conditions, such as chemical spills and faulty machinery. But a claim can sometimes arise from a less obvious condition, such as workplace violence and sexual harassment. The agency that handles these claims has ruled that an employee who complained about severe mental, verbal, and emotional abuse by her boss was protected from retaliatory discharge. That means that women in the workplace who are waitresses or bartenders, for example, can bring an OSHA claim for repeated serious sexual harassment by customers or coworkers, so long as the employer did not take any reasonable steps to lessen that risk, like hiring a bouncer for protection.
The law also applies to a normal office environment, meaning keeping an office at a comfortable temperature, making sure extension cords are not placed in a dangerous position and keeping fire extinguishers in accessible places.
Employees who feel that their employer has violated some provision of OSHA can file a complaint with the agency online or by phone, mail, email or fax. Workers who “blow the whistle” on violations are protected from retaliation, such as firing, demotion, reducing pay or hours, or making threats.
But before going to the OSHA agency, employees should first report the dangerous condition to the employer. A worker is not allowed to leave the job just because he or she has filed a complaint. They can only leave when the condition presents a clear risk of death or serious injury, there is not enough time for the agency to inspect and the employer has been notified of the condition.
When an employee is retaliated against, he or she must file a complaint with OSHA within 30 days. If the investigation shows that (1) the employee engaged in protected activity, (2) the employer knew about or suspected the protected activity, (3) the employer took an adverse action against the employee, and (4) the protected activity motivated or contributed to the adverse action, OSHA will issue an order requiring the employer to reinstate the employee, pay back wages and restore benefits.
Both business owners and their workers should know that OSHA’s intent is to force employers to provide a reasonably safe workplace. But again, when an employee notices a violation, he or she must first report it internally. An employer’s obligation is to investigate the complaint, determine if it’s legitimate and if so, fix it, while not taking any action against the complaining employee. With the collaboration of Connor Turpan, Rutgers School of Law Newark candidate for a JD degree in May 2016 and Associate Editor on the Rutgers Computer and Technology Law Journal.