Health and safety in the workplace are more important now than ever before. You shouldn’t have to put your life and health on the line just to earn a living. And while some level of risk is unavoidable, reasonable precautions such as sanitization procedures, distancing measures and personal protective equipment (PPE) can go a long way toward reducing that risk and keeping employees healthy.
What if your employer is cutting corners?
If you feel unsafe at work, you have a right to speak up, even if you are not sure whether your employer is breaking any specific laws. The law protects employees who blow the whistle on unsafe or unhealthy working conditions, so long as their concerns are reasonable and raised in good faith. It also prohibits employers from taking adverse employment action – for example, by firing you, suspending you, disciplining you, demoting you or giving you unfavorable work assignments – as retaliation for whistleblowing.
What about other employees?
When one employee flouts the rules regarding health precautions – for example, by ignoring quarantines or showing up for work sick – it puts everyone at risk. You have a right to speak up about that, too.
How to go about it
Determining exactly how to report health and safety violations isn’t always easy. Generally speaking, you should first consider reporting your concerns internally. Many employers have internal whistleblowing policies to address these claims. However, OSHA’s whistleblower statute protects any health and safety-related activities and communications to management.
A lot depends on the situation. If your health or safety is in immediate jeopardy, protect yourself first. Likewise, if you have reason to believe you would face retaliation for raising concerns internally, it may make sense to bypass that step and go straight to an external agency.
While verbal complaints/concerns are equally protected, put your complaint in writing and keep a copy of it for yourself. Emails, text messages, and even handwritten notes or letters can all be used as evidence to prove you engaged in a legally protected activity.
Finally, seek out allies at work, and make it clear in your communications to your employer that you are concerned not just for yourself but also for your coworkers. When it comes to workplace health and safety hazards, it is likely that you are not the only person. The National Labor Relations Act protects those “group” concerns, but it does not cover individual “gripes.”
What if your concerns go unheeded?
Sadly, far too many employees who take that brave first step go unheeded. You may need to report your concerns externally – that is, outside the company. The process for doing so depends on the industry you work in and the regulations that apply.
Of course, every situation is different. Talk to an employment lawyer about your concerns, especially if you’re facing retaliation (or potential retaliation) for reporting unhealthy working conditions.