Anyone has a legal right to make a complaint to OSHA about hazardous conditions at a workplace. If you are an employee, you should not make the decision to file a complaint casually, because some employers will respond to a complaint with illegal retaliation. If you are fired or disciplined for filing a complaint, it may be years before your legal right to file the complaint is upheld. And you cannot be certain that it will ever be upheld.
If you are a member of a union, it is a good idea to contact the union before filing an OSHA complaint; the union can file a complaint for you and protect you from retaliation. If you are not a member of a union, it is a good idea to discuss your complaint with at least one other employee and state that you are making the complaint on behalf of yourself and another employee(s).
The way that OSHA deals with a complaint depends upon two questions:
- Who filed it? (For example, a complaint by an employee is given greater consideration than a complaint from a passerby.)
- What does the complaint allege? (A complaint about a condition that could kill someone is given greater consideration than a complaint about a record-keeping violation.)
Complaints by employees and authorized representatives of employees take precedence over complaints from all other persons.
Where Do I File an OSHA Complaint?
Every place in the United States is under the jurisdiction of an area office. Complaints should be filed with the area office that has jurisdiction over the location of your workplace. If you don't know which area office has jurisdiction, you can find out by calling OSHA's toll-free number: 1-800-321-OSHA. When you call that number, you will be asked for the zip code of the workplace. You then are connected to the area office with jurisdiction. If you file with the wrong area office, OSHA is required to forward the complaint to the right office. You can also find your area office by clicking here and following the links in OSHA's website.
How Do I File a Complaint?
Once you know where to file a complaint, you need to decide how to file. The way you file is important for two reasons. Depending on how you file, OSHA may or may not respond by conducting an inspection. Also, the way you file may have a big influence on any repercussions you may experience as a result of your having filed the complaint.
Whether you file your complaint in writing or by telephone, you can give OSHA your name or you can file the complaint anonymously. An anonymous complaint is always treated by OSHA as a complaint from a nonemployee, so it has a lower priority than a complaint from an employee, but OSHA will evaluate the complaint and take some action in response to it.
If you give OSHA your name, you can tell OSHA not to disclose your name to your employer. If you request it, OSHA is required to protect your identity; however, on some occasions employers have learned the identity of a complainant even though OSHA was instructed to protect his or her identity.
What Do I Say in the Complaint?
As with all official forms and letters, the better you present your case, the better chance you have of getting a positive response.
There is an OSHA form for filing a complaint, but OSHA does not require that you use it. If you want to file a written complaint, you can telephone any OSHA office and ask for an OSHA-7 Form, or you can write a letter that answers all of the questions that are on the form (listed below with suggestions from the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, NYCOSH).
Employer name—be sure to spell out the full name of your employer, without abbreviations.
Site location—the street address, including zip code, of the workplace. This is the address that an OSHA inspector will come to, so give OSHA the location of the entrance the inspector should use to see the hazard.
Mailing address (if different)—in case the company doesn't get mail at the site location address.
Management official—If there is a safety engineer or industrial hygienist on the site, fill in that name. If not, give OSHA the name of the site manager or highest company official who works on site. If you're not sure who to name, leave it blank and the inspector will ask for the "person in charge."
Telephone number—of the management official or the head office.
Type of business—be thorough and be specific; OSHA targets certain industries for special emphasis, and an inspector may want to research the hazards of your industry before an inspection.
Hazard description. Describe briefly the hazard(s) that you think exist. Include the approximate number of employees exposed to or threatened by each hazard.—This is the most important question. Answer it as clearly and completely as you can; be organized in your presentation. If you are complaining about more than one hazard, categorize the items by the type of hazard or by the location of the hazard. Specify the approximate number of employees exposed to each hazard. If it is useful, draw a picture of the hazard. If you can include photos without jeopardizing your job, do so. If you have any documentation of the hazard, such as plant surveys, grievances or accident reports, attach copies of them to the complaint, if you think they will help the inspector. Be specific—what kind of metal are you welding? What is the make and model of the equipment? If the hazard is chemical, include the names of all the chemicals used in the area. Give OSHA any name you know (generic, trade) for any chemical. If the hazard only occurs at a certain time of day, or when the windows are closed, or when a particular machine is in operation, make that clear. Be complete—if you want an area inspected, complain about it, because OSHA may limit its inspection to only those areas named in the complaint. Your answer should make the seriousness of the hazard clear.
Hazard location. Specify the particular building or worksite where the alleged violation exists.—Be very clear and identify the location so someone who is not familiar with the workplace can find it. Employers have been known to lead OSHA inspectors on wild goose chases while other managers clean up the hazard the inspector is looking for. Draw a map if that will help. If the hazard is in a large building, be specific about the location within the building.
Has this condition been brought to the attention of the employer and/or another government agency? (specify)—If your employer or another government agency already knows about the subject of your complaint, it is important to tell OSHA, as specifically as possible. Include the name of the agency or the name of the manager, and give any information you have about what happened. If you have the name or telephone number of someone from another government agency who knows about the condition, give that to OSHA. If there are any official reports about the condition, give OSHA copies of, or the names and dates of, the reports. Any evidence that the employer has known about the hazard and not corrected it will give OSHA the opportunity to impose a heavier penalty.
Please indicate your desire: Do not reveal my name to the employer, or, My name may be revealed to the employer.—If you are filing the complaint without the protection of a union, you should think carefully about keeping your name secret. Keeping your name secret from your employer (as long as you reveal it to OSHA) has no effect on the way that OSHA handles the complaint.
The undersigned (check one) employee or representative of employees or Federal Safety and Health Committee or Other (specify) believes that a violation of an Occupational Safety and Health standard exists which is a job safety or health hazard at the establishment named on this form.—If you can check any of the first three options, do so, because OSHA is unlikely to inspect as a result of a complaint from "Other." (OSHA will contact the employer about a complaint from "other," but will not inspect if the employer responds appropriately.) Nevertheless, anyone has the right to file a complaint, and OSHA is required to evaluate it.
Complainant name, telephone number, address, signature and date.—Even if you want OSHA to keep your name secret, you should sign the form, because OSHA gives low priority to anonymous complaints.
If you are an authorized representative of employees affected by this complaint, please state the name of the organization that you represent and your title.—If you are a union or any kind of representative of employees, fill this in.
A complaint is complete with that information, but additional information can help to ensure an appropriate response from OSHA. If you are using an OSHA-7 Form, you should include this information in a cover letter; if you are not using the form, you can incorporate this information in the description of the hazard.
- If you can, you should state that you are filing the complaint on behalf of yourself and at least one other employee.
- If you know a specific OSHA standard that the conditions violates, you should give the name or number of the standard and explain why the condition is a violation.
- If the hazard is intermittent (for example, if it only occurs during maintenance cycles, or when the windows are closed) you should explain when the hazard occurs.
- If you can, you should state whether anyone already has been injured or made sick by the hazard, and describe the injury or illness.
- If you know that your employer has received an OSHA citation during the past three years, you should include any information you have about the previous citations.
If you file by telephone, you should give the OSHA staff the same information you would submit in writing. If you are making the complaint on behalf of other employees, if someone has been hurt or made sick by the hazard, or if you know about previous OSHA violations by your employer, you should give the staff that information, even if you are not asked for it.
What Happens Next?
OSHA puts all complaints into two categories: inspection complaints and investigation complaints. Inspection complaints always result in a visit to the workplace by an OSHA inspector. Investigation complaints always result in a telephone call from OSHA to the employer, describing the complaint and requesting that the employer correct it. The employer has five days to respond, either by denying that the hazard exists, or by stating that the hazard has been eliminated or is in the process of being eliminated.
What Kind of Complaint Results in an Inspection?
There are several kinds of complaints that should always result in an inspection—
- A written complaint, signed by a current employee or employee representative, which describes a hazard that is a violation of the law with "reasonable particularity."
- A complaint (written or by telephone, signed or not) that alleges that physical harm, such as disabling injuries or illnesses, has occurred as a result of the complained-of hazard(s) and there is reason to believe that the hazard or related hazards still exist.
- A complaint (written or by telephone, signed or not) that describes an "imminent danger" situation. Imminent danger is defined as a condition "which could reasonably be expected to cause death or serious physical harm immediately" or before the danger could be eliminated through normal enforcement procedures.
- A complaint about a business that is covered by an OSHA "emphasis program" (OSHA targets certain industries and types of equipment for special attention.)
- A complaint that OSHA initially responded to with a phone call to the employer, but the employer failed to provide an adequate response.
- A complaint about a business that has been cited by OSHA for an egregious, willful, or failure-to-abate violation within the past three years.
What if My Complaint Does Not Result in an Inspection?
When a complaint doesn't fit in any of the categories described above, OSHA schedules it for an "investigation." OSHA telephones the employer and describes the complaint, then follows up with a fax or a letter. The employer has five days to respond.
If the employer responds that the complaint is not true, or states that the hazard has been corrected, OSHA is required to telephone you, or whoever made the complaint, and tell them the employer's response. If you disagree with the employer's response, you can dispute it on the phone. If you dispute the employer's response, OSHA is required to use "professional judgment," based on what you say and on what the employer says, to determine whether an inspection is necessary.
If OSHA decides to not inspect, OSHA is required to tell you the reasoning behind the decision. If you still disagree with OSHA's decision, there is no method to appeal, but you can give OSHA a written complaint, signed by a current employee or an employee representative. A signed complaint by an employee that describes an OSHA violation with "reasonable particularity" is almost certain to result in an inspection. OSHA must inspect in response to such a complaint unless it determines that there is no reasonable basis for the complaint or if OSHA has evidence that the hazard is being corrected.
* Information provided by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH)