You probably know that as an Ohio worker, you’re entitled to a safe working environment. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean you know what to do when your employer isn’t maintaining a safe workplace. Of course, you can address unsafe conditions with your supervisor or management, and your employer may make changes. What happens if the employer ignores your concerns, or makes vague promises and doesn’t follow through?
The answer depends, to a degree, on who you work for. Specifically, the federal Occupational Health and Safety Act and the agency that enforces it (OSHA) offer options for most Ohio workers. If you’re a public employee in Ohio, you will generally be protected by OSHA regulations. But, you may have additional protections under Ohio law.
Federal OSHA protections apply to most private sector workers and to federal government employees. State and local government employees aren’t directly covered by OSHA but may have recourse under an approved state program.
Ohio does not have such a program, but public employees are protected under the state’s Public Employment Risk Reduction Program (PERRP). This program is discussed in greater detail in the public sector section below.
Not sure which protections apply to you? Check the walls at work. Employers covered by OSHA are required to post the OSHA health and safety poster, while state and local public employers must post similar PERRP information.
If your employer hasn’t posted the required information and you don’t know which agency has authority over your workplace, don’t let that become an obstacle. Contact either OSHA or PERRP: if you have it wrong, the agency you connect with will be able to tell you who to contact instead.
You can file a health and safety complaint with OSHA and request a workplace inspection in several different ways. You can use this online complaint form, or you can call or visit your local OSHA office or fax your complaint to them. There are Ohio OSHA offices in Cincinnati, Independence (just outside Cleveland), Columbus, and Toledo.
OSHA recommends speaking with your employer about the unsafe conditions first, but this is not required before filing a complaint with OSHA. Once OSHA receives a complaint, they’ll determine whether they can conduct the investigation remotely or should schedule an on-site inspection.
If there is an on-site inspection, OSHA investigators will talk confidentially with employees or employee representatives in addition to talking with the employer and making any relevant physical inspection.
The OSHA complaint process is confidential. Still, many employees worry that their employers will find out that they complained or suspect that they complained and fire them or otherwise punish them.
Fortunately, federal law protects workers from employer retaliation for reporting health and safety issues to OSHA.
If an employer retaliates by firing the employee, demoting them, making unfavorable work assignments, denying them promotions or raises, or otherwise penalizing them in the workplace, the employee can file a whistleblower complaint with OSHA.
Like the original safety complaint, an OSHA whistleblower complaint can be filed online or by contacting one of the local offices listed above.
Employees of state and local governments in Ohio don’t have OSHA protection, but state law offers an alternative for most. Employees of state, county, and municipal agencies are covered, as are correctional officers at both the state and local levels, public school employees, employees of state universities, firefighters, and EMTs. But, peace officers such as police officers and Sheriff’s deputies are not.
Covered employees may initiate a complaint by filling out this complaint form and submitting it by mail or email. Or, you can contact PERRP by phone at 800-671-6858.
Dangerous workplace conditions or practices can happen in any industry. But, some industries are more frequently cited for violations, and certain types of violations are more common than others.
For the 12-month period from October 2020 through September 2021, the 10 most common OSHA citations were:
PERRP provides a more detailed list of common citations.
Under Ohio law, injured workers typically can’t sue their employers. That’s because Ohio workers’ compensation is an exclusive remedy in most circumstances. The workers’ compensation claim process is streamlined compared with pursuing a personal injury claim, but the compensation available is much more limited.
In certain circumstances, an employee who was injured due to a safety violation may be entitled to additional compensation–either through an intentional tort lawsuit or through the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation (BWC).
Ohio law provides a direct cause of action against an employer if the employer committed an intentional tort that caused the injury. However, the definition of intentional tort is very narrow. The employer must have acted with intent to injure the worker, or with the belief that injury was substantially certain.
This level of intent is difficult to prove. So, most successful intentional tort cases involve one of the two situations in which Ohio law creates a rebuttable presumption that the employer acted with intent: deliberate removal of an equipment safety guard or deliberate misrepresentation of a hazardous or toxic substance.
A special provision allows an injured Ohio worker to apply for increased workers’ compensation benefits if the injury was caused by a certain type of safety violation. In a Violation of Specific Safety Requirements (VSSR) case, the BWC may award a penalty increase of between 15% and 50% of the normal maximum benefit amount.
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