We all know here that the law is the most powerful of schools for the imagination. No poet ever interpreted nature as freely as a lawyer interprets the truth. -- Jean Giraudoux
The legislation that set up OSHA in 1970 also gives employees the right
to complain about workplace safety and health issues. The idea is that
those who work in a particular environment are usually most familiar
with its hazards. Consequently, employee complaints about workplace
hazards have special significance and merit attention.
During Fiscal Year (FY) 1994, OSHA received approximately 30,900
complaints alleging safety and health hazards in the workplace, with
about 7,400 being formal complaints. These complaints generated 23
percent of all of OSHA's inspections for that year. In fact, for the
last 5 years, the complaint inspection average has been 24 percent of
all OSHA inspections. During this period, 32 percent of serious
violations, 23 percent of repeat violations, 28 percent of willful
violations, and 51 percent of failure-to-abate violations resulted from
complaint-initiated inspections. Responding to complaints, therefore, is
a vital part of OSHA's enforcement effort.
When to File a Complaint
OSHA always recommends that employees try to resolve safety and health
issues first by reporting them to their supervisors, managers, or
company safety and health committees. At any time, however, employees
can bring these problems to the nearest OSHA area office for resolution.
Furthermore, under Section 11 (c) of the OSH Act, employees have a right
to make a complaint without discrimination or reprisal from their
Who Can Complain?
Employees or their representatives have a right to request an inspection
of an establishment if they believe there is a violation of a safety or
health standard that threatens physical harm, or an imminent danger.
Anyone, not just employees, who has sufficient knowledge of a workplace
safety or health hazard may make a complaint. A complaint is considered
a request for an OSHA inspection, but not all complaints result in
Is There More than One Type of Complaint?
OSHA classifies inspection requests in two ways: formal and nonformal
complaints. Whether the agency treats a request for an inspection as a
formal or nonformal complaint depends on the employment relationship the
complainant has with the employer and whether the complaint is written
A formal complaint is one signed by the complainant alleging an imminent
danger or a violation of a regulation that may cause physical harm. The
complainant must be a current employee or a representative of an
employee that is exposed to the hazards complained-about in the
Nonformal complaints are oral or unsigned complaints or complaints by
former employees or non-employees. Such complaints are generally
investigated by telephone or letter, but also can initiate an onsite
When and How Should the Complaint Be Made?
Complaints may be made at any time a person becomes aware of a safety or
health hazard in the workplace. During an inspection, for example, any
employee or employee representative may make a complaint to the
compliance safety and health officer (CSHO) conducting the inspection.
Also, potential complaints can be directed to an area director or CSHO
in the closest area office in the state where the workplace is located.
Does the Complaint Need to be Written?
A complaint may be oral (in person or by telephone) or written (by
letter or the OSHA-7 complaint form). The OSHA-7 form, "Notice of
Alleged Safety and Health Hazards," is usually filled out by area office
personnel when an individual calls or visits an area office to make a
To formalize oral complaints, OSHA gives or sends a completed OSHA-7 to
the complainant for signature, or the complainant signs a letter with
the particular details of the complaint and sends it to the area office.
If the complainant does not sign the OSHA-7, the complaint cannot be
treated as a formal complaint.
Because OSHA must give the employer a copy of the complaint, area office
personnel may copy written information onto another OSHA-7 to conceal
from the employer anything that would identify the complainant, such as
handwriting, especially if the complainant has requested anonymity.
What Information Must the Complainant Give?
The complainant must provide enough information for OSHA to determine
that safety or health hazards exist and if they are potential violations
of safety or health standards. This means describing the alleged hazard
in enough detail so OSHA can determine the existence and seriousness of
the hazard. A complainant should be prepared to give all the requested
information on the OSHA-7 (see box), whether it or equivalent form or a
letter is used.
The more detailed and exact the information given in the complaint the
better OSHA can evaluate the alleged hazard or hazardous condition and
make the proper determination whether to conduct a workplace inspection,
to telephone the employer, or to send a letter. This determination is
becoming increasingly impor tant as more and more demands are put on
Because it is important to give as much complete and accurate
information as possible about an alleged hazard, answers to the
following types of questions may be useful:
* How many employees work in the establishment and how many are
* What is the nature of the exposure?
* What type of work is performed in the unsafe or unhealthful area?
* What type of equipment is used? What is its condition?
* What are the materials and/or chemicals used?
* What is the process and/or operation involved?
* What kinds of work are done nearby?
* How often do employees work at the task that leads to their
exposure? For how long at a time?
* How long (to your knowledge) has the condition existed?
* Have any attempts been made to correct the condition?
* How many shifts work in the area and what times do they start? On
what shift does the condition exist?
* What personal protective equipment is required by the employer and
is the equipment used by the employees?
* Have any employees or anyone else the employees work with been
injured as a result of this condition?
The following are some specific questions for health hazards:
* Has the employer administered any tests to determine if employees
are exposed to the hazardous condition or substance?
* What are these tests and the results of the tests?
* What engineering controls are in place in the area in which the
employee work? (For instance, are there any fans or acoustical
insulation in the area which may reduce exposure?)
* What administrative or work practice controls has the employer put
* Do any employees have any symptoms which they think are caused by
the hazardous condition or substance?
* Have any employees been treated by a doctor for a work-related
disease or condition? What was it?
* Have there been any "near-miss" incidents?
When the complainant does not provide the essential information, or the
complaint is too vague to evaluate, or when the area office has other
specific information that the complaint is not valid, OSHA will attempt
to clarify or supplement available information. If OSHA decides that the
complaint is not valid, a letter is sent to the complainant advising of
the decision and its reasons.
Potential complainants also should keep in mind that it is unlawful to
make any false statement, representation, or certification in any
complaint. Violations can be punished under Section 17(g) of the OSH Act
by a fine of not more than $10,000, or by imprisonment of not more than
6 months, or by both.
Will a Complaint Initiate an Inspection?
An onsite inspection will not automatically follow a complaint. OSHA
evaluates complaints according to local area office procedures,
including criteria for classifying the alleged violation or violations
as serious or other-than-serious. If after reviewing the complaint
information, the area office determines that an imminent danger
situation exists, OSHA can initiate an inspection immediately--even
before receiving a signed complaint through the mail.
The agency will schedule all complaints that meet the criteria for
formal complaints for workplace inspections. OSHA will investigate
formal serious complaints on a priority basis within 30 working days and
formal other-than-serious complaints within 120 days. If resources do
not permit investigation within these time frames, OSHA will send a
letter to the complainant explaining the delay and indicating when an
investigation may occur.
When OSHA finds there are no reasonable grounds for believing that a
violation or hazard exists, the agency must report this in writing to
the complainant. If the complaint does not result in an onsite
inspection, the employer will either receive a telephone call or a
letter from OSHA. Anyone, however, who files a formal complaint may
appeal the agency's decision not to inspect for a hazard or violation.
If, however, the area office initiates an onsite inspection, the
employer also will receive a copy of the complaint. Finally, each of the
23 states and 2 territories that have an OSHA state plan, as provided by
Section 18 of the OSH Act, must have an inspection process at least as
effective as that provided by Federal OSHA and must include procedures
for filing workplace safety and health complaints.
Can OSHA Respond More Quickly to Complaints?
The agency has been concerned for some time about the backlog of
complaints in some area offices. As part of OSHA's reinvention efforts,
two area offices--Cleveland and Peoria--successfully developed and
piloted a new process for handling nonformal complaints. After surveying
their customers, the area office teams focused their efforts on
increasing their responsiveness to complaints to abate hazards more
The key to the new process is the telephone: Calling employers about
hazards rather than writing a letter or scheduling a visit expedites the
response. Further, by obtaining the complainant's agreement to try a
phone call first, Cleveland and Peoria have been able to get problems
resolved faster. This also frees inspection resources for cases where
abatement is critical.
The performance results are impressive. Cleveland, which receives the
highest volume of nonformal complaints in the country, reduced its
complaint processing time from 39 to 9 workdays. Peoria, which receives
fewer complaints, reduced its response time from 23 to 5 workdays. So,
workers who file complaints with the Peoria offices are now getting
results in 5 days or less instead of having to wait an average of 3
Area office staff in the pilot program often are able to contact
employers within 24 hours of receiving a complaint. Frequently,
employers agree to investigate and fix the problem immediately. This has
drastically cut the lag time between reporting a complaint and abating
the problem by as much as three-quarters in some cases.
Both workers and employers appreciate OSHA's cooperative approach.
Workers like this process because OSHA gets their complaints resolved
quicker, and employers get personal attention from an OSHA
representative immediately after a complaint has been filed. This allows
employers to investigate the allegation themselves right way, and if a
hazard does exist, they can quickly take corrective action. In the past,
employers would not even have been aware of such an allegation until
several days after it had been filed, because OSHA's procedure was to
mail a letter rather than make a phone call or send a fax.
Encouraged by the success of their nonformal complaint process, the
Cleveland and Peoria teams are looking at how they can improve the
handling of formal complaints that merit an onsite inspection by OSHA.
Under this approach, OSHA would develop new criteria to determine and
set priorities for those complaints requiring onsite inspections while
protecting the right of employees to request an inspection. For other
nonformal complaints, OSHA would investigate using the phone and fax
A pilot for formal complaints began in Cleveland, Peoria, Atlanta, and
Parsippany (New Jersey) in March. Preliminary results are positive. In
Peoria, for example, onsite inspections responding to complaints are now
being initiated in an average of 3 workdays, instead of 35 workdays.
Their complaint backlog has virtually been eliminated.
At present, OSHA is prepared to implement the new nonformal complaint
process in each of its field offices. The staff from Peoria and
Cleveland have presented a train-the-trainer program, and the regions
now have their own trainer to facilitate a reduction in complaint
turnaround time in each area office. Each area office will be trained in
the new process, and the regional facilitators will assist them in
establishing office goals and measuring their performance. The goal is
to implement the new nonformal complaint process by June 1, 1995, and
then assess the results of the formal complaint pilot.
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