Safety Corner: How to Recognize Employer Retaliatory Actions

By Scotty MacNeill

The Occupational Safety and Health Act includes special protections against employer retaliation when workers take action to ensure on-the-job safety.

Retaliation occurs when an employer fires an employee or takes any other type of adverse action against an employee for engaging in protected activity, including those related to workplace safety. An adverse action is defined as one that would dissuade a reasonable employee from raising a concern about a possible violation or engaging in other related protected activity.

Adverse actions can be subtle and may therefore not always be easy to recognize. They may include things such as firing or layoff; demotion; denial of overtime or promotion; discipline; denial of benefits; reduction or change in pay or hours; falsely accusing the employee of poor performance; or reporting or threatening to report an employee to the police or immigration authorities.

Take, for example, a worker who informs her employer that she called OSHA because she believed there was a fire hazard that her employer had refused to fix when she had previously brought it to their attention. At this particular company, there was a long-standing workplace practice that allowed all employees to swap shifts if they needed to take time off. This worker tried to swap shifts a few days after she told her employer that she had called OSHA, but her employer did not allow her to swap. However, the other employees were still allowed to swap shifts.

She immediately contacted her shop steward and her union had OSHA launch an investigation. OSHA deemed the denial of the shift swap an adverse action because in this case it appeared that her employer denied her the shift swap because she had engaged in protected activity. Her employer denied her the shift swap only a few days after being notified that she called OSHA. In addition, she was the only employee denied the ability to swap shifts. By calling OSHA to complain about the fire hazard, this worker had engaged in protected activity, and OSHA fined the employer for the infraction.

Under the whistleblower laws contained in OSHA Section 11(c), workers have a right to report an unsafe condition and are protected against employer retaliation.

When it comes to protecting you, and your coworkers, never be afraid to speak up. And if you suspect employer retaliation, contact your shop steward. Stewards are trained to help you enforce your rights under your union contract as well as OSHA whistleblower protections.