No employer wants a visit from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA inspections are painful, time-consuming, and often quite expensive, resulting not just in 5- or 6-figure penalties but extensive legal and operational costs. And yet many businesses overlook one of the most important and easy to address risk factors for OSHA citations: employee complaints.
Employee complaints are the number 1 reason why OSHA decides to investigate employers.
And the trend is only becoming more common. Here in Texas and other states throughout the US, the agency has been ramping up complaint-driven enforcement in the last several years.
COVID-19 has brought this into even sharper focus. 2020 saw over 39,000 COVID related complaints to state OSHA agencies.
Why do employers ignore employee complaints?
In my experience, it frequently comes down to managers not taking workforce health and safety concerns seriously. More often than not, employees raise issues internally before complaining to OSHA, but management sometimes writes those complaints off as trivial or invalid, even when they point to genuine hazards that can be easily addressed.
In Texas, for instance, I’ve seen employee complaints spike during the summer months. It’s partially a consequence of working in a hot state during a hot time of year—when you’re dealing with temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the work seems twice as hard. But many complaints surround heat illness, a legitimate workforce health concern. Maybe employees want more water, or more frequent breaks. Perhaps people are working in a prefabricated metal building, in which the radiant indoor heat actually exceeds the outdoor temperature.
For whatever reason, these real concerns sometimes get lumped in with the whining about how “it’s too hot!” Rather than providing solutions, a manager scoffs and thinks, well, it’s Texas, get used to it. As a result, employees take their complaints to OSHA—and OSHA launches an investigation.
In some cases, employees file complaints with OSHA without ever raising issues internally because they don’t trust management to listen. Other times, they assume complaining to regulators is the fastest method for solving health and safety problems. I remember consulting for one organization that was experiencing an increase in OSHA citations due to something of a feedback loop. Employees in one department heard about how their co-workers’ OSHA complaints led the organization to fix major safety issues, and figured they’d try the same approach.
How to Minimize Employee Complaints
The most effective way to minimize the chances of an employee filing a complaint with OSHA is simple: make sure you’re providing your workforce with a safe working environment. Train your employees, correct all known hazards promptly, prevent potential hazards, build and maintain a safety culture, and make sure every element of a functioning safety program is in place. The fewer risks in your workplace, the fewer reasons employees have to blow the whistle.
Additionally, provide your workforce with internal channels to raise health and safety issues and concerns. Take every internal complaint and question seriously, no matter how trivial it may seem. Demonstrate to your employees that you care about their concerns.
Looking for more information and tips about staying off of the regulatory radar? Check out OSHA Inspections: Protect Your Business from a Visit.