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Can you be fired for reporting unsafe working conditions?

Your employer is legally prohibited from firing you if you report an unsafe working condition to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

However, that doesn't mean that employers are above retaliation if they think they can get away with it. If that happens, the employer will usually try to cloak the retaliation under some form of legitimate disciplinary action or a company restructuring.

So where does that leave you if you're aware of an unsafe working condition? Do you report it and take your chances?

Ultimately, only you can make that decision -- but working in a place that's unsafe and risking your life every day in order to keep your job doesn't seem like a good bargain. If you do decide to report the safety violation, here is how to go about it with minimum risk to your job:

  1. Talk to your co-workers. A group complaint, presented as a joint concern by several of you, may diffuse your employer's anger at any one individual.
  2. Talk to your union. Although unions are more of a rarity these days, make use of it if you have one. Your union rep can keep your name out of the issue (usually) and negotiate with your employer to get the hazardous situation handled.
  3. Try to talk to your direct supervisor, shift manager or some other person in authority before you take the complaint to OSHA. There's always a genuine possibility that the hazard is just being overlooked. Bosses usually have a lot on their minds and aren't always as conscious of what's happening in the workplace as their employees.
  4. If all else fails, contact OSHA directly with your complaint. OSHA puts a priority on complaints that indicate an immediate or imminent danger to worker safety. That makes the wording of your complaint important. Don't exaggerate, but if you feel that there is an imminent danger to someone's life, say so.

If you are targeted for retaliation after making your complaint -- whether it starts the moment you bring your supervisor's attention to the issue or after OSHA shows up with an inspector, you need to act quickly. You only have 30 days to file a complaint about retaliation with OSHA.

As always, it may be wise to explore your legal options if you're the victim of retaliation, especially if you end up abruptly discharged.

Source: FindLaw, "Employee Safety and Retaliation," accessed Jan. 12, 2018

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