Know your rights!
Most states have laws that make it illegal to fire an employee solely because the employee has suffered a workplace injury. On May 12, 2016, OSHA published a final rule prohibiting employers from retaliating against employees for reporting work-related injuries or illnesses. The rule can apply to action taken under workplace safety incentive programs or accident and hazard reporting policies.
Any form of discipline for violating a safety rule that follows an employee reporting an injury could be seen as retaliation or discrimination under the OSH Act and Workers Compensation laws. Moreover, employees who were accused of violating or not following vague and ambiguous safety rules are often disciplined and eventually fired by their employer, even if they were not injured. Poorly designed company safety programs and the employer’s own failure to follow OSHA standards put employees in harm’s way, and workers should not bear the blame. If you were terminated or disciplined for violating a safety rule that did or did not result in an injury, your employer could be in violation of the law.
OSHA has rules on how employers must inform and prepare their employees to report work-related injuries, illnesses and hazards. However, in order to shortcut compliance obligations, some employers implement “Safety Absolutes,” “Life Critical Safety Rules,” “Zero-Tolerance,” and “Life Saving” and other rules and policies to highlight safety. While on the surface these rules seem well-intentioned, they are often used to blame workers for the employer’s own systemic failures to effectively comply with OSHA standards. In some cases, these rules are a blame shifting tactic to hide the company’s own shortcomings. If you were fired for violating a safety rule following a workplace injury, or you were or disciplined for not following certain safety policies, you could have a wrongful termination claim against your employer. Here are some things to consider:
- Does your employer have a clear, unambiguous safety policy that is written and provided to the employees concerning the rule that was violated?
- Does the employer have current OSHA violations or a history of OSHA violations?
- Were you provided with training relating to the safety rule that was broken?
- Do supervisors ignore the rules when management isn’t “paying attention?”
- Is the discipline that your employer wishes to impose proportional to the infraction committed? In other words, does the punishment fit the crime?
- Has the safety rule that was violated been consistently applied and enforced by the employer in the past, particularly with regard to employees that violated the rule and were not injured as a result?
- Are you or your coworkers fearful to come forward and report accidents, hazards, or safety policy violations for fear of retaliation?
- Are you or your coworkers afraid to point out where you own employer might be violating OSHA rules for fear of retaliation?
Consider these examples:
- A maintenance technician is working on a piece of equipment under Lockout and Tagout. However, the employer fails to meet all of its OSHA compliance obligations under Lockout/Tagout and has non-compliant procedures, processes and training. As a result of the employer’s compliance failure, the technician is injured while working on the equipment and is subsequently fired for not following “Safety Absolutes.”
- An employee is instructed by his/her supervisor to use a forklift to move material in the warehouse. However, the employee is not trained under OSHA rules as a qualified driver. The supervisor ignores this rule and instructs the employee that it is “okay” to bypass a few safety rules in order to meet production demand. The employee is afraid to report these comments by the supervisor for fear of retaliation. The employee proceeds to drive the forklift as directed by the supervisor and is later terminated by management for violation of safety policy.
These examples show clear negligence by the employer to meet their OSHA obligations and implement a clear cut program that is well understood and uniformly enforced. In such cases, workers may be able to file a claim against their employer for retaliating against employees for reporting work-related injuries or OSHA policy violations.
In addition, employees disciplined or terminated after filing a workers’ compensation claim can also make a legal argument similar to the retaliation rule under the OSH Act. Workers have the right to file a workers’ compensation claim, and discipline or termination following such a claim can give rise to what is known as a violation of public policy claim (meaning that it is a violation of public policy to punish an employee for exercising their right to file a workers’ compensation claim after sustaining a work-related injury).
If you were wrongfully terminated for getting hurt on the job, or retaliated against for not following non-compliant or failed employer safety policies, contact an attorney who can help explain your rights.