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When to Call OSHA

Workers facing hazardous job conditions need to make choices about what kind of action to take to prevent or eliminate risks. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) gives private sector workers and some public sector employees the right to file complaints about hazardous job conditions, including requests for on-site inspections. This fact sheet can help you decide when you should -- and when you shouldn't  make a formal complaint to OSHA.

Before You File an OSHA Complaint

An OSHA complaint should only be filed when you and your coworkers have judged that it is likely to produce positive results. Indeed, filing an OSHA complaint should be viewed as one tactic among many for eliminating and preventing hazardous working conditions. Whether you are facing hazards that pose imminent danger and need immediate action or those that have persisted for years, consider the following steps before filing a complaint with OSHA:

  • Call your Union, if you have one. As your bargaining agent, your union is experienced in negotiating with your employer over a range of issues, including unsafe working conditions. Your union should also be able to judge whether to resolve hazardous conditions by working cooperatively with your employer, by complaining to OSHA, or by using other tactics. In addition, the legal power of the union should help protect you from retaliation for taking action.
  • If you don't have a union, talk to your co-workers. Remember there is strength in numbers and that hazardous conditions are likely to affect many of you. Keep in mind that you have the right to have your name withheld from your employer if you make a complaint to OSHA.
  • Bring hazardous conditions to your employer's attention, if possible. It is your employer's legal responsibility to keep your job safe and healthful. If you are a union member, work with your steward or safety committee to notify your employer about hazards -- and allow an appropriate response time. (Despite OSHA's anti-retaliation provisions, some employers still retaliate against workers who raise health and safety concerns. Workers in unions have multiple protections against retaliation and therefore are less vulnerable when raising concerns directly with their employers.
  • Meet or speak with OSHA before filing a request for an inspection. Inspectors in area offices can be helpful to workers who have questions about how to make the strongest case for an inspection. They may be familiar with your employer, and they are likely to be familiar with the types of hazards you are facing. However, you should be clear that by making this inquiry you are not asking OSHA to take action -- you are simply gathering information for a possible complaint in the future. Be prepared: Depending on the severity of your complaint, it is possible OSHA will want to take immediate action.
  • Be Aware of OSHA's Limitations

    There are many good reasons for calling OSHA. You or your co-workers may be in imminent danger. You may have notified your employer about hazardous conditions and received an unsatisfactory response. Or you and your coworkers may believe direct notification of your employer may be too risky. But before contacting the agency, you should be familiar with some of OSHA's limitations:

    What's Regulated and What's Not

    OSHA standards do not cover every hazard, and many current standards are not protective enough. For example, there are no federal standards regulating indoor air quality or extreme temperatures. Thus, complaining to OSHA about these hazards-- or any of the under-regulated hazards -- may not be enough to trigger an inspection or to get your employer to make changes even though an OSHA inspection occurred. And even though the OSH Act's "General Duty Clause" legally requires employers to maintain safe and healthful workplaces "free of recognized hazards," the agency has had limited success enforcing this provision [Section 5(a)(1)] of the law.

    Who's Covered and Who's Not
    If you work in the private sector, you are most likely covered by an OSHA regional office under federal OSHA or an OSHA program operated by your state government. If you work in the public sector in a state that runs its own OSHA program, you are covered by those states. However, more than eight million public sector workers in 27 states are not covered by federal OSHA.

    OSHA's Staff Resources

    Nationwide, there are approximately 2,100 federal and state OSHA inspectors responsible for enforcing the law at more than seven million workplaces. At its current staffing and inspection levels, OSHA would take more than 100 years to inspect each of these workplaces just once. Because of these limitations, OSHA relies on the "deterrent"  impact of its enforcement program. Inspections that result in penalties at one workplace are intended to send a message that other employers should heed. In fact, many employers have a profound fear that OSHA will inspect their workplace. And workers should be aware that this possibility is often more effective than an actual inspection. As one union safety committee member said, "If you haven't used the inspection as a threat, it's too soon to file a complaint."

    Time to File an OSHA Complaint

    Once you have determined that complaining to OSHA may be useful, you still need to make your case loud and clear enough to get the agency's attention and a productive outcome. OSHA's response may depend not only on how and when you contact them, but also on how well your complaint addresses the severity of the hazard, the connection between the hazard and a specific OSHA standard, and whether the hazard poses a clear and immediate danger.

    Know What OSHA is Looking For

    Since OSHA's small staff can't possibly conduct an inspection in response to every complaint, the agency evaluates the complaints it receives. It's similar to the way a hospital emergency room staff determines who to treat first. The agency does not judge complaints on a "first come, first served" basis. OSHA ranks complaints according to the severity of hazards and the number of workers potentially exposed, and familiarity with this system can help you make a stronger case for an inspection: The Number One priority for inspections is "imminent danger" situations, in which workers face an immediate risk of death or serious physical harm. These complaints are often made from the work site, where workers should stay,  but away from the hazard -- after making a complaint. The Number 2 priority is incidents involving fatalities or "catastrophes" -- defined by OSHA as an accident involving death or that requires hospitalization of three or more workers. The Number 3 priority is employee complaints and referrals. Complaints can be filed if you believe there is a violation of an OSHA standard or if you believe there is a serious health or safety hazard.

    Filing an OSHA Complaint

    Workers can file complaints to OSHA in person, by telephone, by fax, by mail or electronically through OSHA's web site: http://www.osha.gov. The agency evaluates each complaint to judge whether it is valid and whether it should prompt an off-site telephone investigation or an on-site inspection. The way you make your complaint is an important strategic decision, since it will likely determine whether your employer faces an on-site investigation. Formal Written complaints signed by a current employee or their representative must be submitted to initiate on-site inspections except in rare cases. For information about filing a written complaint with OSHA, see the COSH Protecting Workers Who Exercise Rights fact sheet entitled How to File a Complaint with OSHA. Non-formal fax or telephone complaints help OSHA respond more quickly to hazards. This may also be a useful approach for unorganized workers who would like to remain anonymous but need some immediate action taken by their employer. OSHA usually follows up these complaints with a telephone call or fax and the employer must respond within five days, identifying in writing any problems found and noting corrective actions taken or planned. The downside of this option is that OSHA does not conduct a physical inspection of the workplace, and there are cases where employers have told OSHA they had corrected a problem (or that no problem existed in the first place.) If you use this option and the problem doesn't get fixed, consider contacting OSHA again. Call 1-800-321-OSHA to make a complaint or to find out the fax number for the OSHA Area office near you.