Both federal and state workplace safety laws prohibit your employer from retaliating against you for asserting your rights under those laws.
An employer retaliates when it makes any negative change in your working conditions to punish you for having asserted your rights under the law. This can include anything from assigning you less desirable work tasks or shifts to giving you an unwarranted poor performance evaluation to denying you a promotion, demoting you, or firing you.
In many states, you can sue your employer for retaliating against you for complaining about workplace hazards. You can also complain to your state's health and safety agency. To find out more, contact the workplace health and safety agency in your state.
Unlike many states' laws, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (the OSH Act or OSHA) does not authorize you to sue your employer directly in court yourself. Instead, you must ask the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (also known as OSHA) to intercede on your behalf.
If you suspect that you are being retaliated against for making an OSHA complaint, you have only 30 days from the time the retaliation takes place to file a complaint about the retaliation with your local OSHA office. (Note that you would need to file a separate complaint about the retaliation itself in addition to the original OSHA complaint you filed about the workplace hazard.)
Whether you will prevail in your retaliation complaint often turns on whether you can prove that your employer took the negative action against you because you asserted your rights under OSHA, rather than for some other reason unrelated to your original OSHA complaint (for example, because your performance slipped or because economic cutbacks required layoffs). Be sure to back up your retaliation complaint with as much documentation as possible to show that your employer took action against you only after -- and because -- you complained.
Once you have filed a retaliation complaint, OSHA will investigate and respond. If you prove that you were fired or otherwise punished because you complained to OSHA, the compliance officer handling your complaint will attempt to convince your employer to take the proper action to remedy the situation. For example, if you were demoted in retaliation for your complaint, the OSHA compliance officer would probably ask your employer to reinstate you to your original position and give you the backpay to which you are entitled.
If OSHA is unsuccessful in getting your employer to reverse the effects of the illegal retaliation, it can sue your employer in federal court on your behalf.
For more information about retaliation under the OSH Act, see Your Rights in the Workplace , by Barbara Kate Repa (Nolo).