Workplace Health and Safety Protections

NOTE: If you are in immediate danger, inform your supervisor as soon as possible and/or call OSHA at 800-321-OSHA (6742). Although you may be legally permitted to walk off the job if you are in imminent danger, your right to do so is limited, therefore, it is best to report the hazard before you make the decision to walk off the job.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) publishes rules and enforces the Occupational Safety and Health Act (also OSHA), which protect workers from on-the-job injuries and illness. Read below to find out what measures your employer is required to take to keep your workplace safe, and what you can do if you believe that the appropriate measures are not being taken.

OSHA, short for theOccupational Safety and Health Act, is the main federal law regulating workplace safety. Put simply, OSHA gives you as an employee the right to have a safe and hazard free workplace. OSHA accomplishes this by randomly inspecting workplaces and by taking complaints directly from workers. Workers in certain states are also protected by state OSHA laws.

Here are some of the specific rights that OSHA guarantees:

  • You have the right to notify your employer or OSHA about workplace hazards. You may ask OSHA to keep your name confidential.
  • You have the right to request an OSHA inspection if you believe that there are unsafe and unhealthful conditions in your workplace. You or your representative may participate in the inspection.
  • You can file a complaint with OSHA within 30 days of discrimination by your employer for making safety and health complaints or for exercising your rights under the OSH Act.
  • You have a right to see OSHA citations issued to your employer. Your employer must post the citations at or near the place of the alleged violation.
  • Your employer must correct workplace hazards by the date indicated on the citation and must certify that these hazards have been reduced or eliminated.
  • You have the right to copies of your medical records or records of your exposure to toxic and harmful substances or conditions.
  • Your employer must notify all employees of their right to report work-related illnesses or injuries. This obligation may also be satisfied by posting the OSHA Job Safety and Health poster.

OSHA covers almost all employees in the private sector. The main groups not covered by OSHA are government employees (the public sector), independent contractors, and those who work on family farms. State and local government agency employees are not covered by OSHA but have OSHA protections if they the state that they are working in has an OSHA- approved state program. These states include Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, New Jersey, New York, and the Virgin Islands. As for federal employees, OSHA protections apply to all federal agencies.

State OSHAs must be at least as effective as the federal one. Many states have simply adopted the same federal standards, while other states have adopted stricter safety requirements. In addition, state OSHAs provide protection to public sector (state and local government) employees. If your state does not have a state OSHA, you will still be covered by federal OSHA regulations.

The following dark shaded states have an approved state OSHA:

In addition, ConnecticutIllinoisMaineNew JerseyNew York and the Virgin Islands have state plans that only cover public sector (state & local government) employment.

Check with your state’s OSHA office or web page for more specific information on your state’s OSHA.


State and local governments often have safety plans in place designed to protect workers. Federal employees are covered by safety laws that require the same level of safety as in private jobs.

OSHA imposes many requirements on employers. Among the most important are the duties of the employer to:

  • Provide a workplace free from serious recognized hazards and comply OSHA regulations.
  • Examine the workplace to ensure that equipment and practices conform to OSHA requirement.
  • Make sure employees are properly using tools and equipment and make sure that the equipment itself is safe.
  • Inform employees about potential hazards.
  • Train employees in dealing with hazards.
  • Report any fatal or serious injuries to OSHA within 8 hours.
  • Provide employees with a reasonable procedure for reporting work-related injuries or illness.
  • Keep records of workplace injuries and make these records available upon request to employees and former employees.

OSHA only requires that employers warn and protect employees from known hazards.” If your employer has been made aware of a hazard, you should be warned about it. This is one reason why it is important to bring any hazards to your employer’s attention.

Yes. OSHA standards are divided into four categories: general industry, maritime, construction, and agriculture. In 2016, OSHA issued a final silica standard to reduce dust exposure in general industry, maritime and construction sectors which is expected to prevent more than 600 deaths and 1000 cases of silicosis each year.

Inform your employer or supervisor as soon as you can, preferably in writing. A rule published by OSHA clarifies the requirement that your employer mustprovide a reasonable procedure for employees to report work-related injuries and illness. So your employer should have an easy way for you to make a report within a reasonable amount of time after you realize that you have an injury or illness. If you believe the accident or illness occurred as the result of a recognized hazard, you may file an OSHA complaint. Keep in mind that to prove an OSHA violation, you must show that your employer did not maintain a safe workplace and that the specific hazard causing your injury was known as being likely to cause death or serious bodily injury. If you have to miss work or seek medical attention due to the accident or illness, you may also have rights to worker’s compensation. For more information, see our site’s workers’ compensation page.

Employers with more than 10 employees are required to keep records of serious injuries and illnesses that occur in the workplace except for certain low-risk industries and minor injuries. OSHA defines a work-related injury or illness as any work-related fatality, injury or illness that results in loss of consciousness, days away from work, restricted work, or transfer to another job. Work related injury or illness requiring medical treatment beyond first aid, any work related diagnosed case of cancer, chronic irreversible diseases, fractured or cracked bones or teeth and punctured eardrums are also included in the OSHA list of work-related injuries that require reporting. Work-related cases that involve needlesticks and sharps injuries, medical removal, hearing loss, and tuberculosis require special recording criteria. Employers must report any worker fatality within 8 hours. Any amputation, loss of an eye, or hospitalization of a worker must be reported within 24 hours.

Injuries and illnesses may be reported online or by phone.

  • Call the nearest OSHA office.
  • Call the OSHA 24-hour hotline at 1800-321-6742 (OSHA)
  • Report Online.

Note: Be prepared with the name of the business, names of the affected individuals, location and time of the incident, a description of the incident, a contact person and telephone number.

The Injury and Illness E-Reporting rule, effective on December 1, 2017, requires employers to electronically submit injury and illness data that is already recorded on OSHA forms 300, 300A, and 301. Some of this data will be available to the public online. The OSHA website will provide three options for data submission. Users will be able to manually enter data into a web form, upload a CSV file to process single or multiple establishments at the same time, or users of automated recordkeeping system will be able to transmit data electronically via an application programming interface, (API).

Under the new OSHA regulation, employers of 250 or more employees, at a single location, are required to annually upload electronic OSHA logs, forms, and summaries. Regulations also require employers in high hazard industries, with 20-249 employees to electronically submit their 300A summaries.

No. OSHA rules explicitly prohibit an employer from firing or retaliating against an employee because they reported an injury or illness. An employer may fire or punish you for violating safety rules, or for violating reasonable reporting procedures. But the fact that you reported an injury or illness cannot be the reason for the punishment.

In order for OSHA to issue a citation against an employer for retaliation, the following must be true:

  • The employee reported a work-related injury or illness;
  • The employer took adverse action against the employee (action that would deter a reasonable person from reporting an injury or illness); and
  • The employer took the adverse action because the employee reported a work-related injury or illness. (this can be proven by circumstantial evidence, as hard evidence may not exist in some cases.)

Yes. With some exceptions, usually based on the size of the company, OSHA requires employers to keep records of injuries and illness in the workplace. Employees and former employees must be provided access to these records. All employers, regardless of the size of the company, are required to report fatalities or injuries that require hospital visits. These reports must be made available to employees. Additionally, you can search for inspection reports of your workplace on OSHA’s website.

Many employers ban guns at work, and in 28 states they are allowed to do so. However, in some states employers are more restricted, these include Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin. In those states, employers are still allowed to ban guns in offices and factories, but cannot prevent employees from storing their guns in their cars, and on company property, while at work. There are some variations in the state laws, like not being able to discriminate against gun owners, but the core of each of the laws allows employees to keep guns in their cars while at work.

Yes. Your employer is required to display the OSHA poster (pdf) (or its state equivalent in states with their own OSHA laws) in a prominent place where employees are likely to see it. This poster explains worker’s rights, the protections offered by OSHA, and information on contacting OSHA.

You can go to any OSHA office (either the local office of federal OSHA or your state’s OSHA office) and complete the appropriate forms. Complaint forms also may be filled out and submitted online or printed and faxed or mailed. Forms are available through OSHA’s website.

Anyone aware of a workplace hazard may file a complaint — not just employees. This includes union representatives.

No. You can file claims anonymously online if you prefer. However, a written and signed complaint is more likely to result in an on-site inspection by OSHA, instead of a phone or fax interview.

While you don’t need a group to file a report, many employees prefer to assemble co-workers before taking action. Benefits to assembling others are that your complaint may be taken more seriously, and the risk of retaliation by your employer against particular individuals is lessened.

Depending on the severity of the hazard in the complaint, OSHA will either conduct an on-site investigation or they will do a phone or fax interview with the employer.

At least one of the following eight criteria must be met for OSHA to conduct an on-site inspection:

  • A written, signed complaint by a current employee or employee representative with enough detail to enable OSHA to determine that a violation or danger likely exists that threatens physical harm or that an imminent danger exists;
  • An allegation that physical harm has occurred as a result of the hazard and that it still exists;
  • A report of an imminent danger;
  • A complaint about a company in an industry covered by one of OSHA’s local or national emphasis programs or a hazard targeted by one of these programs;
  • Inadequate response from an employer who has received information on the hazard through a phone/fax investigation;
  • A complaint against an employer with a past history of egregious, willful or failure-to-abate OSHA citations within the past three years;
  • Referral from a whistleblower investigator; or
  • A complaint at a facility scheduled for or already undergoing an OSHA inspection.

If a hazardous condition is found, OSHA can order your employer to remove the danger. If the danger is less severe, OSHA will issue a citation to your employer that will state the hazard, notify everyone at your work site of the hazard, and give a time limit for your employer to fix it.

OSHA’s phone/fax method enables the agency to respond more quickly to hazards where none of the eight criteria listed above are met or where the employee or employee representative requests the phone/fax method. OSHA telephones the employer, describes the alleged hazards and then follows up with a fax or a letter. The employer must respond within five days, identifying in writing any problems found and noting corrective actions taken or planned. If the response is adequate, OSHA generally will not conduct an inspection. The employee who filed the original complaint will receive a copy of the employer’s response. If still not satisfied, the complainant may then request an on-site inspection.

If a hazardous condition is found, OSHA can order your employer to remove the danger. If the danger is less severe, OSHA will issue a citation to your employer that will state the hazard, notify everyone at your work site of the hazard, and give a time limit for your employer to fix it.

To encourage employees to bring safety hazards to the attention of OSHA without having to fear retaliation from their employers, OSHA makes it illegal for employers to retaliate or discriminate against employees who participate in OSHA proceedings. This means you cannot be fired, demoted or otherwise discriminated against for exercising your rights under OSHA.

To file a claim that your employer discriminated against you because of your participation in an OSHA-related proceeding, you must be able to show:

  • That you did actually participate in an OSHA proceeding (filing a complaint, testifying, asking for an investigation etc.),­­­­
  • That your employer knew this, and
  • That due to your involvement in the proceeding you were subjected to an adverse employment action (for example, being fired, demoted, having your hours or pay cut, or being harassed).

Complaints of discrimination should be filed as soon as possible within 30 days of the discriminatory act by your employer. This process also applies to situations where you walk off the job because you believed you were in imminent danger by continuing to work.

For more information about filing a discrimination complaint based upon your participation in an OSHA-related proceeding, see our site’s page on environmental whistleblowers.

If there is a serious and immediate hazard at your workplace, inform your supervisor as soon as possible. It may be necessary to speak with more than one supervisor and/or to speak with them more than once. If your supervisor does not do anything, and there is no time for OSHA to act, you may be permitted to walk off the job free from retaliation from your employer.

However, your right to do this is limited to situations where you are in “imminent danger.” The following conditions must be met before a hazard becomes an imminent danger:

  • There must be a threat of death or serious physical harm. “Serious physical harm” means that a part of the body is damaged so severely that it cannot be used or cannot be used very well.
  • For a health hazard, there must be a reasonable expectation that toxic substances or other health hazards are present and exposure to them will shorten life or cause substantial reduction in physical or mental efficiency. The harm caused by the health hazard does not have to happen immediately.
  • The threat must be immediate or imminent. This means that you must believe that death or serious physical harm could occur within a short time, for example before OSHA could investigate the problem.
  • If an OSHA inspector believes that an imminent danger exists, the inspector must inform affected employees and the employer that he is recommending that OSHA take steps to stop the imminent danger.
  • OSHA has the right to ask a federal court to order the employer to eliminate the imminent danger.

Walking off the job should only be done if there is no other reasonable alternative and if your safety is in serious and immediate danger. In addition, you should call OSHA as soon as possible to report imminent dangers at 800-321-OSHA (6742).

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.