I’ve written more posts about the Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OSHA) than I can count. Most of my OSHA-related articles discuss specific safety hazards or issues that impact my Alabama clients. In some articles, I discuss specific citations at Alabama businesses.
One of my primary complaints — OSHA is undermanned and underfunded. The Agency should protect working men and women. In theory, it does. In reality, it lacks the manpower to conduct needed inspections. Unsafe workplaces across the United States go without inspection until a deadly accident leaves families grieving the loss of a loved one. This lack of manpower and inspections are issues I’ve discussed many times. So, I’ll leave it for today.
Are OSHA inspections and violations public record? Someone recently asked our office this question. Yes, they are accessible. In many prior cases, I’ve obtained OSHA reports or data. Through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, you can find detailed information about violations and other incidents. In prior cases, I’ve found key information from these FOIA requests. I’ve also obtained information from OSHA’s Birmingham area office. But, I’m not writing simply to list the steps in a FOIA request. Nor am I writing to list addresses that are available in a simple Google search. Instead, I want to talk about a couple serious ways OSHA can help your injury case. I also want to discuss a third way OSHA should impact safety through our work comp system. Unfortunately, it does not in Alabama.
If you are a worker with concerns about safety, you can make a confidential complaint to OSHA. Under Federal law, it is illegal for an employer to retaliate against you. I’ve discussed whistleblower issues in prior articles. So, let’s get to the topic today. How OSHA information makes a difference in your accident case?
OSHA Citations Can Make A Big Difference Where It Matters Most — Workplace Safety
Safety matters. Companies are run by people. We all know some people care for others around them. But, a few do not. For those few companies, the threat of attention from OSHA makes a difference. Whether it’s the possibility of monetary citations or negative press, OSHA carries a big spotlight. On an individual corporate basis, it can make a difference in preventing future accidents.
I’ll give you an example. Back in January, I wrote about Dollar General and some serious OSHA penalties it currently faces. You can read my article at, Is Dollar General An Unsafe Work Environment? Over the years, I’ve represented numerous Dollar General workers injured because of the company’s workplace dangers. I know these are hard jobs where workers are regularly overworked. I know these workers are also required to engage in work that puts them at risk of injury. We’ve been able to help these clients get needed work comp benefits. But, an occasional work comp case in Alabama is not going to change an unsafe corporate culture for all employees. When OSHA starts issuing serious financial penalties, like it did against the store in Alabama, that can result in change. Suddenly, an individual company faces a real decision. Does it continue putting workers at risk at a huge price?
On a broader level, OSHA can also spotlight common or trending workplace dangers. The first step is always to recognize the problem! With OSHA data, we can see the real safety problems our workers face. For example, every year I write about the top ten OSHA safety violations. My article uses the data published by OSHA. By compiling this information, OSHA is spotlighting specific safety issues that need improvement. Safety professionals can then focus on reducing serious risks and accidents.
OSHA Reports Can Identify Responsible Parties
This is a key issue in many of our personal injury cases. Let’s look at a possible scenario. You or a loved one suffer a serious injury at an industrial or construction worksite. You are probably entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. But, those benefits are pretty limited. Medical treatment with company doctors. Some benefits (called Temporary Total Disability) while the doctors have you off work healing. If you don’t fully heal, maybe some more benefits for a permanent disability. With work comp, the benefits are limited. And, you cannot recover for all your damages and losses. Plus, your own employer (and your co-workers) are largely immune from claims beyond work comp benefits unless they intentionally did something wrong. This leaves many working families unable to recover their losses.
What can you do? Work comp does not cover all your losses. Can you recover damages beyond work comp benefits? Yes, if a third-party (someone outside your employer) negligently harmed you. On busy worksites with multiple contractors, that’s often a possibility. We regularly look at serious accidents on multi-employer worksites. Here’s a common problem with those potential cases — As an injured employee, your knowledge is limited. You may not know all the other contractors or their roles. If you hire a lawyer after your injury, that lawyer can conduct an investigation. But, it’s a lot easier to discover the truth when you carry the power of the government like an OSHA inspector.
How can OSHA help in these situations? When OSHA investigates a serious accident, it will often issue a detailed report. That report may point you to the negligent person who caused your injuries. The report may function like a roadmap!
I’ll give another example. Several years ago, I represented a welder whose company went into a factory to repair some large tanks. While working on a tank, he was suddenly gassed and collapsed. In the days and weeks after the accident, doctors learned his lungs were badly and permanently damaged. Because of his lung problems, he would never have the stamina to return to work. What happened? Was someone outside his employer negligent? OSHA investigated the incident. At the end of its investigation, OSHA issued a report detailing exactly what happened. An employee of another contractor on site negligently combined several chemicals causing the incident. We now had a roadmap leading us to the negligent party. Even more, I sat down with OSHA’s legal counsel to discuss the issues. We pursued work comp benefits for our client. We tried and won his work comp case, obtaining full disability benefits for him. We then turned our attention to the negligent third-party contractor, pursued a claim, and obtained additional damages for our client. The OSHA findings identified the negligent parties.
In another case, we represented a man who suffered severe injury in Huntsville when his extended lift toppled. He fell over 20 feet to a hard concrete surface, fracturing bones throughout his body. A detailed investigation with witness statements made a big difference in our client’s claim.
In many instances, OSHA investigators have access to documents and witnesses that you do not. Let’s face the truth – They have access because they hold the power of the government! You don’t. Their findings often shed substantial light where corporate wrongdoers would like to hide the truth. In the process, this provides injured workers needed answers to the key questions of who, what, how and why!
Bonus — One Way OSHA Citations Should Make A Difference But Do Not
I’ve argued several times that OSHA citations should make a difference in the amount of work comp benefits available to an injured worker. You can read several of my articles here on this blog. I’ve asked the question: Should worker safety be a two-way street? Here’s what I mean.
Under Alabama law, workers who engage in horseplay, intentionally violate safety laws, or cause their own injury by being impaired on drugs, can be barred from receiving work comp benefits. I understand these issues. But, what about the opposite situation? What about a company that intentionally puts workers at risk, chooses not to take any safety steps, or willingly creates dangers contrary to safety rules?
If workers are penalized for intentional conduct that causes injury, shouldn’t companies be penalized as well? While Alabama work comp laws penalize these unsafe worker activities, they provide no penalty for corporate wrongdoing. In some states, the work comp laws add a penalty which makes the corporation pay more in these situations.
If we really want to promote safety, it should be a two-way street. For that matter, why should a company that tries to do the right thing pay the same as a company that ignores worker safety? I believe our comp laws should be amended to add penalties for companies that choose to put lives at risk.
OSHA exists to protect workers. We need an agency that is properly funded, fully staffed and beyond politics. As a worker, you should be able to count on OSHA to protect you from injury.
From its office in Huntsville, the Blackwell Law Firm represents injured men and women across Alabama. If you have questions about a personal injury issue, let us know. We are happy to provide confidential answers.