Dan Markiewicz, MS, CIH, CSP, CHMM.
An employee at an Ohio factory was fired during his first week on the job when he was caught, in full view of other employees, urinating on the shop floor. This should have been the end of the story, but it wasn’t. The employee complained to OSHA that he was fired for bringing up workplace safety concerns. He also told OSHA that other employees had serious safety concerns but they were afraid to speak out.

OSHA demanded the home addresses and telephone numbers of all 700+ employees so investigators could conduct interviews at home, where employees could speak more openly. Reluctantly, the employer complied. Subsequent interviews with a sampling of employees fully refuted the allegation that employees were intimidated or that they had serious safety concerns.

OSHA ended its investigation. But many employees, feeling that their rights to privacy had been violated, were angry. Some wondered if there was more to the story. It took many days to calm everyone down.

Venting and retaliating

Short of workplace violence, “crying wolf” to the government that a company is seriously breaching its environmental health and safety responsibilities is usually the strongest way a disgruntled current or former employer can vent or retaliate against their present or past employer.

More of these attempts to “get even” could be coming. Stress and anger are rising among employees. Layoffs are proliferating; we get daily reports of downsizing, and many companies are trying to get more work out of fewer workers. Now with the economy slowing and more jobs in question, stress and anger levels might increase even more.

Are you prepared to bear the brunt of these kinds of allegations? As the environmental health and safety pro, all eyes will be on you: company managers, government inspectors, and employees. After all, how could serious EHS violations occur without the complicity or ignorance of the person responsible? Your tough job has just been made tougher.

Allegations of serious EHS wrongdoings often cause inspectors to investigate longer and probe deeper than they would for a standard inspection. Armed with “whistleblower” protections, the complaining current or former employee might hide behind anonymity and embellish or distort dangers posed by the most trivial concerns. If a wide enough net of alleged EHS hazards and non-compliance is cast, chances are inspectors will find some sort of violation when they follow up.

Ten rules

What do you do if a current/former employee entangles you in a false EHS allegation?

Rule One: Set aside your emotions. Getting a rise out of management is an early win for the person that made the allegation.

Rule Two: Approach the problem as a management team. Representatives from human resources (and maybe legal) must be included in the team.

Rule Three: Meticulously gather facts — only facts. Avoid subjective opinions. See Rule One.

Rule Four: Be alert to staged problems by the current/former employee. If industrial hygiene sampling is part of Rule Three, observe the entire sampling period for each employee sampled.

Rule Five: If the current/former employee is shielded by anonymity, don’t waste time speculating on who made the allegation. The time wasted is better spent on Rule Three.

Rule Six: Raise your level of formality when dealing with government investigators. This is not a standard compliance inspection. The situation is more serious. Go strictly “by the book” when dealing with inspectors. Remember, inspectors will be initially biased for the current/former employee.

Rule Seven: If the false EHS allegations are made public — if the current/former employee posts allegations on the Web, for example — refer to company procedures for dealing with external EHS information and communication. If legal was not involved earlier, ensure they are now.

Rule Eight: If your plant is part of a corporation, expect some corporate oversight and involvement. If possible, retain local control of the problem.

Rule Nine: Take your lumps if some problems are discovered. No workplace is so squeaky clean that some hazards or non-compliance cannot be found. Simply acknowledge and resolve the problem.

Rule Ten: Don’t retaliate. See Rule One. Let’s make one point clear: There must be an avenue for current and former employees to complain about EHS hazards and non-compliance without fear of reprisal. And you must take all allegations seriously. Don’t assume everyone is out to “get even.” And certainly not all allegations will be false. But given the current climate of mistrust in many organizations, you need to be prepared for abuses.