Factsheet of the "Protecting Workers Who Exercize Rights" Project of the National COSH Network
Have You Heard of OSHA?
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration - OSHA - is the federal agency established to ensure workers are protected from hazards in the workplace. If your workplace is unsafe you can contact OSHA. OSHA can require that the boss at the place you work correct the hazard.
It's against the law for either your employer (temp agency or subcontractor) or the employer at the site where you are working to punish or fire you for raising a health and safety concern or for calling OSHA. But she or he may try to retaliate against you anyway.
That's why you need to know your rights and how to use them. And you need to know what to do to protect yourself if you're punished or fired.
Work Shouldn't Hurt
Your boss is required by OSHA to provide a workplace that is free of recognized hazards. A hazard is anything that can hurt you or make you sick. Some typical hazards are :
- chemicals that can burn or make your skin blister or itch
- chemical vapors, fumes, or gases that make you cough, feel sick or dizzy
- machinery that doesn't have proper guarding so your hands or fingers can get caught or smashed
- equipment that is so loud that it's damaging your hearing
- computer keyboards that are making your wrists ache.
But I'm a Temp Worker. How Do I Fit In?
Under OSHA you have the same rights as permanent workers. This is true even for workers who are employed by temp agencies, sub-contractors and other types of contingent work arrangements. If you have been assigned to a job where hazards may injure you or make you sick, your OSHArights allow you to :
- request an OSHA inspection by a filing a complaint
- request and get information at work from your boss, such as Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), that tell you what you're being exposed to
- request and receive information and training about precautions to take when working with hazardous materials or equipment (some training may be provided by the agency or subcontractor that employes you and other training by the employer at the site where you are working)
- talk to an OSHA inspector during an inspection of you worksite
- have an employee representitive walk around with an inspector during an OSHA inspection
Who Do I Complain To?
If you are exposed to a hazard, want an MSDS on a chemical you're using or want training on a hazardous operation, you would probably want to speak to the boss at the place where you're actually working. But be aware that you boss may contact your temp agency and say that you're a "trouble maker."
If you're afraid the boss will contact your temp agency to get you removed from the job, you may want to go directly to OSHA. You can call your OSHA office, but it would be better to send them a letter. Better yet, ask them to send you an OSHA-7 complaint form. You can ask a family member or, if you have a union, a union representative to sign and send the complaint. If you sign the complaint, you can ask OSHA to keep your name confidential.
The purpose of your complaint is to get an OSHA inspector to come tinto your workplace. You can increase the chances of an inspection if you tell OSHA about clear violations of OSHA standards such as :
- no training on hazards like chemicals or infectious diseases
- no or bad ventilation or personal protective equipment (gloves, clothing, respirators) when working with chemicals that make you sick
- blocked exits
- wet and slippery floors
- exceptionally loud noise and no access to hearing protection
Do's and Don'ts When Using Your OSHA Rights
- Don't get in your boss's face when making a safety and health request.
- Do be cool. Think ahead. Prepare yourself for a hostile responce.
- Don't go it alone.
- Do talk to your co-workers. Get one or more to go with you when you ask the boss to give you information about a hazard or to correct a hazard. There's strength in numbers - avoid looking like a lone "troublemaker."
- Don't forget to involve the union if you have one, or if there's a union that represents the permanent workers at the place you're working.
- DON'T complain directly to your boss if she or he is likely to punish you!
- Do protect yourself. Go to your union if you have one, or contact OSHA directly. Talk to and involve co-workers.
- Don't wing it.
- Do chart your course carefully. If you talk to the boss about a safety concern, keep notes of the date and what the boss said. Write down thr names of any witnesses. Take your notes home with you to save them. Your written records will be important if the boss punishes you or asks your temp agency employer to remove you from your job.
- DO file a complaint under Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act with OSHA if you think your boss has punished you or has asks your temp agency employer to remove you from your job.
- Don't miss deadlines!
Your boss or temp agency employer can't legally punish or fire you for using your rights!
Can I be Punished for Using My OSHA Rights?
Not legally. It's against the law for a boss to punish you for asking for information, to correct a hazard, or for contacting OSHA. But your boss (either the temp agency boss or worksite boss) may try to break the law. Your boss may do things like change your shift, lower your pay or discipline you after you complain. Your temp agency may try to transfer or even fire you.
If you think the boss or temp agency punished or fired you for using your rights, here's what you can do :
- File a discrimination complaint with OSHA (it's called an 11(c) complaint).
- File the complaint by contacting OSHA - you can call them but it's safer to also send a letter by certified mail.
- You need to tell OSHA what rights you used before your boss or temp agency employer punished or fired you.
- You must file your 11(c) complaint within 30 days of when you were fired or punished!
- You can authorize your union representitive (if you belong to a union), a family member, or a local worker rights' organization (like your area Committee on Occupational Safety and Health - COSH group) to file for you.
- If OSHA agrees that you rights were violated, an investigator will interveiw you and your witnesses. Your boss will also be interviewed.
- The boss or temp agency may try to prove that you were punished for being a poor employee. Or, your temp agency may say that you were taken off the job because your services were no longer needed. You can fight back by showing OSHA your written notes, showing when you complained, what you complained about and who your witnesses were.
- If OSHA agrees that you were punished for using your rights, they will try to settle the case with your boss or temp agency. OSHA can ask that you get back any lost wages or fringe benefits as well as reinstatement in your old job.
- In certain cases, OSHA may be able to help win "punitive damages." In one case, two illegally fired workers were able to win three times their lost wages!
- You may have other rights under other federal or state laws.
Violators Can Be Punished!
There's always a risk that the boss at your worksite will punish you for using your rights.The boss may call your temp agency and tell them that they no longer need you. That's bad news. The good news is that the boss and temp agency can be punished for violating your rights and endangering your health.
Here's what happened in Milwaukee :
OSHA issued a fine of $450,000 against a Milwaukee hospital and two temp firms that supplied housekeeping workers to the hospital. OSHA cited the hospital for failing to protect workers from infectious hazards and hazardous chemicals.
Temp workers were assigned to the ER, operating room and trauma units without any apparent training on specific hazards. Six temps had needlesticks - a source of Hepatitis B and AIDS. These workers were not tested for infection ( nor treated if found to be infected) as required under OSHA's Bloodborne Pathogens (BBP) standard.
Besides citing the hospital, OSHA cited two temp agencies. Staffworks Inc. was fined $119,000 for a willful violation of OSHA's BBP standard and it's Right to Know standard. The other agency, Accustaff, was fined $129,000 for failure to follow the BBP standard.
If you need help exercising an OSHA right or filing a complaint for retaliation, contact :
- Your Union. - (if you have one) or the union's national headquarters. If there is no union for you to contact, your options include calling :
- Your local COSH group. There are COSH groups in more than 25 U.S. cities. For the nearest Committee on Occupational Safety and Health, contact WisCOSH at (414) 933-2338 or, in Madison, call scwCOSH at (608) 257-4272 or NYCOSH at (212) 627-3900.
- The Government Accountability Project You can reach the GAP by telephone at (202) 408-0034; or by e-mail at email@example.com
- OSHA (toll-free). For the OSHA office nearest you, call 1-800-321-OSHA. You will be prompted to "press 1 to file a complaint." You will be prompted to press the ZIP Code of your location. You will be connected to the local OSHA office.
This material has been funded in whole or in part with federal funds from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, U.S. Department of Labor, under grant #46A7-HT51. These materials do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Labor, nor does the mention of trade of names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.