Part 1 of a series of posts on the OSHA enforcement process for USW health and safety activists
The Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1970 remains one of the landmark laws for rights of workers in their workplace. The Act created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and provides the legal framework for OSHA to do their work.
The USW believes that almost all workplace health and safety hazards and/or violations of the OSHA standards and regulations are addressed by our members, their union representatives and their employers. This is exactly why we establish union and joint labor management health and safety committees and strive to include contract language in the collective bargaining agreement on health and safety. However, sometimes additional help is needed to address workplace hazards or to convince an employer to follow the legal requirements from OSHA.
The USW tells our members and health and safety activists that every worker has a right, guaranteed by the Act to file a complaint with OSHA. In fact, anyone who knows about a hazard can submit the complaint. The local union also has the same right. However, we suggest that, in practice, the OSHA complaint should generally be a last resort. The OSHA complaint is a valuable tool, but the local union hopefully has established a working relationship with their employer to address health and safety issues. This is why, we believe, almost all of the issues in USW-represented workplaces are addressed without OSHA intervention.
Sometimes an OSHA complaint is necessary. When it is necessary, workers or the local union should not hesitate to file the complaint.
There are different types of OSHA complaints. The two that are most prevalent in USW represented workplaces are informal complaints and formal complaints.
Informal complaints are usually made when a worker or union representative calls OSHA and explains about a hazard or OSHA rule violation. OSHA will respond to an informal complaint, but often does so by calling the employer and asking them to address the problem and send OSHA proof that the hazard either doesn’t exist or that it has been addressed (usually by providing photos). This is sometimes referred to as the phone and fax process.
If there is an emergency or situation that is immediately life-threatening, workers or a local union should call OSHA at 1-800-321-OSHA.
Formal complaints are usually made in writing. Workers can use a standard form from OSHA, or can be written in a letter from a worker or the local union. The person submitting the complaint may ask to remain anonymous. However, the USW suggests that union representatives allow OSHA to include their name on the complaint because if the employer retaliates against them for filing the complaint, the employer is breaking the law. If the employer breaks this law, it is much easier to substantiate the violation. OSHA will respond to the formal complaint, usually within a few days, by starting an investigation at the workplace.
The complaint should provide information about the health and safety hazard or OSHA rule violation and include as much of the following as possible:
- How many employees work at the site and how many are exposed to the hazard?
- How and when are workers exposed?
- What work is performed in the unsafe or unhealthful area?
- What type of equipment is used? Is it in good condition?
- What materials and/or chemicals are used?
- Have employees been informed or trained regarding hazardous conditions?
- What process and/or operation is involved?
- What kinds of work are done nearby?
- How often and for how long do employees work at the task that leads to their exposure?
- How long (to your knowledge) has the condition existed?
- Have any attempts been made to correct the problem?
- How many shifts work in the area and what times do they start? On what shifts does the hazard exist?
- What personal protective equipment is required by the employer? Is the equipment used by the employees?
- Has anyone been injured or made ill as a result of this problem?
- Have there been any “near-miss” incidents?
Generally OSHA is not required to investigate following injuries (unless a complaint is filed). There are two exceptions to this. First, when a fatality occurs at a workplace the employer is required to notify OSHA and they will initiate an investigation. Also, OSHA will investigate when a catastrophic incident occurs that results in the hospitalization of three or more workers. Then the employer is also required to notify OSHA within eight-hours.
Your local union representatives are the best starting place for help when you have a health and safety concern in your workplace. The USW offers training through its Tony Mazzocchi Center on an ongoing basis to health and safety committee members and local union representatives.
The USW district also provides support and assistance to your local union. This support starts with the district staff representative who provides ongoing service to your local union and extends to the district health and safety coordinator and the district director. (The USW health and safety iPhone app provides district contact information.)
The USW health, safety and environment department also provides support to your local union. The USW health, safety and environment department staff spend the majority of their time working directly with local union health and safety activists to resolve problems. The USW health, safety and environment department can be contacted at email@example.com or at 412-562-2581. The department will try to answer any question from a member or local union and will also work with you and your district, staff representative and local union to address the issue.
Submitted by James Frederick, TMC