Leonard A. Bellavia, Esq.
Bellavia Blatt & Crossett, PC
Recently the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) published a bulletin addressing practices businesses adopt that may discourage employees from reporting workplace injuries. Businesses typically want employees to report injuries as promptly as possible for a host of reasons, such as filing workers compensation or insurance claims in a timely fashion and minimizing the occurrence of the kind of injury to other employees. However, what happens when an employee is injured because he or she violated a workplace safety rule instituted by the company? Suppose your business has a rule requiring technicians wear safety glasses while working on machinery. Should your staff discipline a technician who is injured because he or she failed to adhere to the rule? More broadly, do disciplinary actions like this example discourage employees from reporting injuries?
Before disciplining employees for violating workplace rules that led to their injuries, your staff should understand OSHA’s position on workplace injury reporting. In short, OSHA views reporting workplace injuries as a core employee right. Actions that may discourage reporting will be viewed negatively by OSHA, regardless of whether his or her failure to adhere to safety rules played a roll in the employee’s injury. Policies to discipline employees for failing to report accidents in a timely fashion may also discourage employees from reporting injuries if not administered properly.
Your analysis of how your business’s practices may discourage reporting of injuries should not end with evaluating workplace safety rules violations. You should also investigate any incentives your business uses to encourage workplace safety. OSHA distinguishes between incentives that promote training and workplace improvement and incentives that reward injury-free workplaces. The former is generally permissible, while the latter may violate the law because such incentives may discourage employees from making such reports.
When formulating your own policies, keep in mind OSHA’s broad objective to encourage employees to report workplace injuries and to scrutinize actions by employers that may discourage employees from making reports. First, ask whether your practices discourage reporting. If you penalize employees that fail to report injuries in a timely fashion, make sure the discipline imposed furthers the genuine interest served by reporting injuries in a timely fashion, such as filing workers compensation claims promptly. If it does not, amend your policy so that it does. Discipline employees that violate workplace safety rules well before injuries occur, and be consistent with how you discipline employees who violate such rules. Using the safety glasses rule example from above, make sure your staff enforces safety rules consistently among all employees bound by these rules. Claims of discrimination may arise if certain employees are permitted to work without wearing safety glasses while others are punished for breaking the rule. If you wish to adopt incentives to promote safety at work, focus on incentives for training and improvement and not incentives for injury-free workplaces.
If you have any questions regarding OSHA requirements and compliance, please call us at 631-224-7000.