OSHA’s Role in Investigating Workplace Accidents
Workplace injuries can happen for many reasons, and thousands of workers suffer injuries in accidents each year. Even when an employee does not suffer acute injuries in an accident, poor workplace conditions can lead to other illnesses and injuries.
Federal regulations and agencies govern workplace safety. However, the remedies for injured workers fall under state workers’ compensation laws. Employers must follow an expansive set of state and federal rules or face civil consequences. There may even be criminal consequences based on the extent of the violation of the rule.
How do these employer consequences affect injured employees? It depends on the specific circumstances of what caused the accident and injury. If you suffered injuries at work, the best course of action is to speak with a workplace accident attorney who can evaluate your legal options. They can also keep track of any relevant safety investigations by government officials and use them to your advantage whenever possible.
OSHA Investigates Safety Violations and Prevents Accidents
The Occupational Safety Health Administration (OSHA) has existed for roughly five decades. Its function is to help keep workplaces safe by drafting and enforcing work safety rules. These regulations touch upon many areas of an employee’s daily job. OSHA rules have significantly reduced workplace injuries, although there is still far more work to do to keep workers safe on the job.
Employers may find themselves facing civil action when they do not follow OSHA rules. The agency can investigate rule violations in several contexts. OSHA has been known to show up and perform surprise inspections and take disciplinary action when they find that employers have not followed the rules. In addition, employees and others may report suspected violations to OSHA for further investigation. The agency may also conduct regular inspections, although it does not always have the budget and resources to act.
OSHA Investigative Priorities
When it comes to investigations, OSHA has several priorities. The agency’s foremost priority is to prevent future catastrophes and take action when there are imminent risks to workers. Then, the agency will prioritize investigating workplace fatalities to prevent a recurrence of the dangerous condition that has already potentially killed someone. Finally, OSHA’s third investigative priority is complaints and referrals made to the agency.
OSHA relies on workers to report violations, so they can watch an investigation. OSHA takes suspected rule violations very seriously. The agency will address every complaint that it receives. OSHA will decide whether to conduct an on-site or off-site investigation in response to every complaint. In some cases, OSHA may decline to conduct a further investigation after it brings a report to the attention of the employer and determines that the employer is aware of the
When a worker reports a violation to OSHA, the agency will take measures to protect the worker’s identity if the employee wants to remain anonymous. The agency wants to keep these reports coming because they are a way for OSHA to learn of workplace violations. Therefore, OSHA has every incentive to ensure that reporting workers are not discovered and retaliated against. Employers might even try to discriminate against those who have filed reports of suspected misconduct, which violates the law.
In addition, OSHA will conduct an investigation when there has been a workplace fatality or catastrophe (A catastrophe is an accident in which three or more workers require hospitalization). An employer has a legal obligation to report a fatality or catastrophe to OSHA within eight hours of it occurring.
OSHA Fines for Rule Violations
The agency will investigate the circumstances of the accident and determine whether the employer followed all relevant rules. OSHA might follow up these investigations with a citation and a potential fine. OSHA issues fines on a per-violation basis. If the agency has discovered numerous violations of its rules, it will assess numerous fines.
Currently, OSHA assesses the following fines:
$14,502 for serious violations
$145,027 for each willful or repeated violation
The Timing of OSHA Investigations
The timing and extent of the OSHA investigation depend on the seriousness with which the agency views the potential violation. If OSHA thinks the situation is serious, it may conduct the initial inspection within 30 days after the accident or violation report.
OSHA investigations take time. The average time from when OSHA launches an investigation until it may take action can be six months. OSHA investigations are not necessarily effective in protecting workers and preventing violations as they occur. Many times, workers are hurt before OSHA has even reached a conclusion.
Injured Workers Do Not Receive OSHA Fines as Compensation
You should always remember that OSHA regulatory actions are civil enforcement. When OSHA fines an employer, the money goes to the federal Treasury. It does not become financial compensation for the injured employee or their family.
Even if OSHA finds a violation of a federal rule after an accident, you may still not recover financial compensation directly from the employer for the injury. There are very rare cases in which you can directly sue your employer for a personal injury. A finding of a rule violation will usually not change this equation. You may still only seek workers’ compensation benefits even if your employer violated an OSHA rule.
However, you may still file a lawsuit for financial compensation if the party who broke the OSHA rule was not your employer. For example, you may file a third-party claim against another contractor who was present on the work site. The OSHA investigation might be targeting them, and a subsequent violation can be very helpful for your case.
You Cannot File a Lawsuit Against Your Employer Under OSHA
As of this point, there is no private right of action under the OSHA legislation. There is a chance that that can change at some point in the future. Some in Congress have spoken about the possibility of changing the law to allow injured employees to sue their employers when they have suffered an injury due to an OSHA rule violation. This might be a sea change, especially when state worker compensation laws do not allow for negligence-based lawsuits against employers.
There may be a favorable political climate for potential rule changes at this time. In theory, it might allow a worker to sue an employer when they violate an OSHA rule. This situation will differ from one in which an employer is negligent without violating a safety regulation.
Lawsuits Enforce OSHA Rules
There have been numerous concerns voiced about OSHA and its ability to enforce its own rules, including:
OSHA is often slow to investigate and take action, leaving violations in place to endanger workers for a prolonged period
The agency is underfunded and does not have enough inspectors on the payroll, and Congress does not seem inclined to up the agency’s budget
OSHA has a reputation for being friendly to employers at the expense of employee safety
Some advocates have suggested a compromise that allows employees to file lawsuits for violations of OSHA rules when the agency does not conduct an inspection or take action within a certain amount of time.
There are many policy issues to consider if Congress is to make any changes to the current statute. Either way, employees are not adequately protected by the current statute when the agency lacks the resources and will to enforce it.
You Will Usually Qualify for Workers’ Compensation Benefits for a Workplace Injury
You might receive workers’ compensation benefits, even if your employer violated a rule. Workers’ compensation benefits are awarded regardless of fault in a workplace accident. State law allows injured workers to receive payment for medical expenses and a portion of their lost wages if they have suffered a work-related injury.
It does not matter whether the worker or the employer was at fault for the injury. Unless the employer intentionally injured the worker or the employer acted with gross negligence, the end result is usually that the employee will file a workers’ compensation claim. The benefits, while they will help with living expenses when the employee cannot work, will certainly be less than an injured employee can recover if they successfully file a personal injury lawsuit.
Violations of OSHA Rules Might Constitute Gross Negligence Under Texas Law
Violation of an OSHA safety standard does not necessarily equate to gross negligence. Under Texas law, gross negligence involves:
“An act or omission, which, when viewed objectively from the standpoint of the actor at the time of its occurrence, involves an extreme degree of risk, considering the probability and magnitude of the potential harm to others and of which the actor has actual, subjective awareness of the risk involved, but nevertheless proceeds with conscious indifference to the rights, safety, or welfare of others.”
It is difficult to give specific examples of gross negligence up front. Courts take the view that they will know gross negligence when they see it. It will require an analysis of the facts and circumstances of your case to make that determination.
You Have a High Burden in Proving a Gross Negligence Personal Injury Lawsuit
Depending on the scope and extent of the OSHA violation and the employer’s actual knowledge of the potential risk, you might have a potential lawsuit against your employer. Of course, you will have a high burden to meet to file a personal injury claim. Gross negligence is a far higher standard than ordinary negligence.
Nonetheless, there are reasons why you want to try to file a personal injury lawsuit whenever possible.
Here are some differences in your financial situation between a worker’s compensation claim and a personal injury lawsuit:
Workers’ compensation claims pay you a portion of lost wages up until a certain cap
Workers’ compensation claims may only be for a certain duration
You will not qualify for non-economic damages such as pain and suffering and emotional distress in a workers’ compensation claim
Workers’ compensation benefits are paid to you over time, while a personal injury settlement is paid to you upfront and all at once
You have the potential to get punitive damages against the employer if the violation of the statute was egregious enough and the gross negligence was serious
If your loved one died in a workplace accident, your family can receive wrongful death benefits if you can file a claim directly against the employer.
You Need an Experienced Attorney to Assess Your Legal Situation
You need to contact a personal injury lawyer who also has a background in worker compensation claims as soon as possible after you have suffered an injury. You cannot wait for OSHA to complete its investigation because that can take months. Workers’ compensation claims have tight deadlines that you need to meet to qualify for benefits. If you miss these deadlines, you may not get anything in a workers’ compensation claim. The important thing is that you take action now because waiting can harm both your financial and legal interests.
Your Attorney Can Investigate Your Workplace Accident
An experienced attorney can perform their own investigation of the accident while you are waiting for OSHA to issue their findings. Your lawyer can determine whether you have a potential personal injury lawsuit or you have a workers’ compensation claim. A workplace accident attorney can look at what happened from numerous perspectives to see if you have a potential lawsuit. You cannot expect OSHA to act quickly enough, nor can you completely accept their conclusions.
It will not cost you anything to speak with a workplace accident attorney right now. You will not have to pay a retainer, nor will you receive hourly bills while your case is pending. You will only need to pay the attorney if you receive some sort of financial compensation for your injuries. All workplace accident attorneys offer free consultations to prospective clients. Even if you do not decide to retain the attorney, it always helps to get the perspective of an experienced lawyer for your case.