Career Key

Author: Career Key's President and CEO, Juliet Wehr Jones, GCDF, J.D.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Occupational Health Concerns: Realistic Work Safety Career Advice

Do you have occupational health or work safety concerns? Do you work in an unsafe workplace and wonder what to do about it? For this last post in our occupational health series, I’ll wear my employment lawyer* and career development facilitator hats.  Let’s look at your options with a realistic, practical eye.

Consider Your Options and Make a Good Decision
Start by using Career Key’s ACIP decision making process to resolve a work safety situation. You can download a free Decision Balance Sheet to complete.  The four steps will help you:
  1. Make a list of alternatives and options;
  2. Explore the consequences of each option;
  3. Get more information about each option, and
  4. Plan out how to follow through on your decision.

Options Might Include (likely more than one will apply):

A.  Trying to fix the unsafe situation yourself, if possible (and safe);
You work for a supervisor whose management style and actions are causing you a lot of stress, impacting your physical and mental health. Can you switch to a different boss and a different department within your employer, ideally before you get a negative performance evaluation? Don’t let a bad boss go on too long, otherwise the company won’t likely let you transfer.

B. Following a procedure in an employer’s employee handbook or policy guide for reporting an unsafe condition. There may be a “chain of command” you must follow. The question is whether this will help or hurt you.  Only you know the culture and personality of your workplace.

C. Finding another job first, then quit your current job. This means:
  • Saving money to support you during possible unemployment;
  • Networking as much as possible without jeopardizing your current job.
  • Applying to and interviewing for other jobs before you leave your current job.

D. Filing a complaint with a city, state or federal agency, like OHSA or the EEOC (if your stress is being caused by a manager illegally discriminating against you.)

E. Pay for a one-time consultation with a plaintiff’s employment lawyer to find out what your options are and what, if any actions, they recommend. It might be the best $200 (or less) you ever spent – especially if you end up keeping unemployment benefits you might have otherwise lost by checking the wrong box on a form. Consulting a lawyer doesn’t mean you’re committing to sue someone.

Let’s look at a realistic scenario:
Your supervisor requires you to record your work hours for driving a truck in a way that you know breaks the law and could cause driver error.  (There are strict federal rules about truck driving with limits on how many hours drivers can be on duty) There is a lot of pressure to get more loads delivered with fewer drivers, making it impossible to be honest about work hours. Your employee handbook says to report the legal violation and unsafe condition directly to the HR department.  You know that if you do, your supervisor will likely retaliate against you – perhaps through a bad performance evaluation or an excuse to fire you.  And HR will likely do nothing about it – your boss and the HR Manger go to lunch together all the time. What do you do?

A complicated decision…
There are a lot of factors to consider, like your finances, family support (of you) and obligations, the current level of personal danger/risk, and how easily you can find another job elsewhere.  Even if you are illegally fired in retaliation for complaining of a safety violation, you still need a job and income while you are pursuing any legal claim.  This is why you must try to make Option C, preparing to leave your job, a viable option.

Sometimes leaving an employer makes legal claims less valuable to lawyers, even though it likely makes you healthier.  The reality is that quitting a job can reduce the value of an employment claim and get your unemployment benefits denied if your safety complaint is not believed.  And to recover large amounts of money from an employer, there must be big damages – large amounts of lost wages and trips to the doctor for emotional distress.

However, waiting for a bad employer to fire or lay you off has serious consequences too – tolls on your physical and mental health and on your family. It’s also harder to find a job if you’ve been fired or laid off. Lawsuits take a long time and are a gamble – juries are not always sympathetic.

Give up?
But does that mean you should give up – leave and let a bad employer hurt other people?  No.  It just means that you might wait until you are safely in another job to file a complaint against your old employer with a government agency, which is required to investigate.  Know what you’re getting into and prepare accordingly.

So if you were that truck driver, you would likely file a complaint with your state’s department of transportation or highway patrol. They enforce truck driving regulations and will audit companies suspected of violating the law.  The best thing about filing with a government agency is that is it free, and forces the employer to respond to the investigating agency.  It may not be quick or net you a big money payoff, but they put the employer on the spot. Responding to a government agency takes time, money and effort.

I hope this post hasn’t been too discouraging.   These decisions are hard, with no easy conclusions.  I hope you don’t encounter an unhealthy work environment but if you do, you will be able to leave it if you want to.

*You knew there would be a legal disclaimer, right? This blog is not individual legal advice and is general in nature. State laws differ. If you need legal advice, please go consult a lawyer in your area.

For my first two posts in the series see:

After writing this post, I realized I wanted to say a lot more about self-preservation and being proactive in a volatile, unforgiving job market.  That will be up next....