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For a few weeks, I was working at a scenery shop in Florida. The shop is a toxic mess. They openly burn Styrofoam with little to no ventilation. The lumber is stacked upright inviting a dangerous tumble. The tools have no safety attachments, nor dust accumulation. The table saw doesn't even have a fence or guide. Not to mention no fire cabinets and the various hazardous chemicals are piled high.

When I first confronted the owner/manager about the burning of Styrofoam I was scolded. I often saw co-workers breathing toxic dust and using the table saw freehand. They, of course, appeared to be doing so as if they were intimidated. I was eventually let go for wanting too much "construct" to a working environment.

I'm not sweating the loss of the job. However, I feel I should do something for the safety of others.

Is there anyone I can contact about this?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Lilienthal Oct 1 '17 at 0:47
  • Hazardous chemicals, depending on what they are, may also be under the jurisdiction of your local fire marshal. In many locations, the building sprinkler system is required to be updated to match usage and contents of the building. – Stephen Collings Aug 1 '18 at 11:26
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Yes.

Call OSHA and describe what went on. If you have photos/videos, this will help reinforce the fact. There's no need to advise your prior employers that you're doing this. Just follow the advice of OSHA when you call them.

Be prepared that your prior employers might have moved their operations or tightened up their safety since you left. I'm sure that the OSHA would much rather be called to a false alarm than not called to inspect a potentially fatal working environment.

Handy link to report to OSHA - How to file a OSHA Complaint

It's possible that you may have cause to raise a "wrongful termination" case against your prior company since you, it appears, got fired for attempting to address the safety issues. I expect this situation arises from time to time, so OSHA may advise you here as well (or at least point you toward resources to advise you).

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    There may also be a "wrongful termination" case if the company was proven to violate safety requirements. However, your case may be weakened by the fact that you didn't report to OSHA until after you were terminated. – Phil M Sep 26 '17 at 18:52
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    @PhilM: "your case may be weakened by the fact that you didn't report to OSHA until after you were terminated" - on the other hand, the OP first attempted to address the issue internally, before carrying the information to an external organisation such as OSHA (which could be considered some kind of a "breach of trust", despite being officially a legitimate way to go). – O. R. Mapper Sep 27 '17 at 6:02
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    your case may be weakened by the fact that you didn't report to OSHA until after you were terminated true, although while he was there he potentially had some prospect of improving matters without reporting the company - and was fired for doing so. – Grimm The Opiner Sep 27 '17 at 7:19
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    @GrimmTheOpiner I'd think that contacting OSHA regardless would be best - they're best placed to advise as to the most appropriate action here. – Snow Sep 27 '17 at 7:24
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    My experience is that if you talk to OSHA in person, the employer would be visited immediately. Sometimes within just an hour. OSHA can be tough on places that are unsafe. Small offences can be easily corrected, however, multiple serious offences will shut them down immediately and rightfully so. I have seen this done more than once. Cheers!! – closetnoc Sep 28 '17 at 20:46
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First you should think long and hard about what you want to report. OSHA has many rules and many more guide lines.

For example:

  • The shop is a toxic mess. - This is not actionable; you need to be specific.
  • They openly burn Styrofoam with little to no ventilation. - Depending on where they are in FL and how the building/area is setup the EPA may care and OSHA may not. It depends.
  • The lumber is stacked upright inviting a dangerous tumble. - This may just be opinion. Unsafe stacking of materials is one of those things that have guidelines, but not rules. Obviously a giant Jenga game is not good, but vertically storing wood is 100% fine. Some woods and applications actually recommend it.
  • The tools have no safety attachments, nor dust accumulation. - OSHA may care about this one. It depends on the tools. For example, a table saw may need a guard OR a jig OR a push piece. The problem is people tend to remove the guard and not use the jig or push piece.
  • The table saw doesn't even have a fence (guide). - I don't think OSHA requires them. (not 100% sure)
  • Not to mention no fire cabinets and the various hazardous chemicals are piled high. - OSHA may care about this one. It depends on the setup, but generally it IS a rule and not a guideline to keep any flammable liquids less than 120 gallons, and more than 25 gallons in a cabinet. More than 120 gallons gets tricky as the general rule is a designated room, but certain kinds of liquids have different storage requirements.

The point is that OSHA is often times seen, from the employees view, as the place you call when you don't feel safe. And it's for a good reason; OSHA does make the workplace safer. But there are many things that some people feel are unsafe, that are not regulated by OSHA. Or are regulated by them in a way that they feel is safe, but is against the "general" idea of what is acceptable safe.

All that being said, when in doubt, call it out. That's why they have the hotline. Make sure to list specific examples, and dates if you can. If you can, list specific machine locations and chemical locations and amounts. Just be prepared for the fact that the site may be in 100% compliance, or may have "cleaned up" after you left.

  • It may be a good idea to draw a map of everything you can remember about the place's layout before you left. – Panzercrisis Sep 28 '17 at 13:13
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    Even when stacking wood vertically, there are still certain safety precautions that should be taken (especially if you're talking 16-foot lengths of something like 2x12s, which could cause serious harm if they fell over on someone attempting to grab one). You'll notice at Lowe's/etc when they store wood vertically, there are chains/cables that keep the wood from falling into the aisle; to take a piece you have to grab it, lift it over the lower chain, then draw it out under the upper chain. If the rest of the stock tries to fall on you it'll give you a scare but be restrained by the chains. – Doktor J Sep 28 '17 at 19:43
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Anytime you report a safety violation, you must be careful how you frame it.

The employer will not appreciate the report, and will try to spin the matter so as to convince the inspector that he doesn't really need to drive out and look. It's a virtual guarantee that he will try to frame it as "disgruntled former employee" and he may even say something untrue about you trying to use it for extortion.

It is not extortion if you Just Report It and never make a threat. It is also not extortion if the threat is "Employer, I demand you repair Defect X or I will report you to the government for not repairing Defect X", - you see the symmetry there. However if the demand is other than "fix the defect", all bets are off.

Also, it's possible they are expecting you to call the authorities and are bracing for a visit from an inspector. A bit of strategic waiting might help.

You also might want to run it by an employment attorney to see if the employer has violated whistleblower law. At the very least, a phone call from an attorney might make them back off from challenging an unemployment claim.

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    I think your opening title and second paragraph are the main problems. The OP has no demands of the employer, has already lost the job, and does not seem to want it or anything else from the employer. If you feel strongly about the "extortion" bit, unbold it and move it (and the associated second paragraph) to the end as a side note. Suggested replacement bold title: "Be careful about how you word the complaint." – jpmc26 Sep 27 '17 at 3:03
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    @jpmc26 Honestly I was just going to delete it, but on your suggestion, try this. – Harper Sep 27 '17 at 3:15
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Is there anyone I can contact about this?

Depending on what kind of work this shop performs, there is another option. If the scenery company is a subcontractor doing work for a larger project, the general contractor may have some liability for any safety violations. The project owner is another option.

It's a crap-shoot, because sometimes the parties involved simply don't care, but it's a way to draw attention to the issue without risking being seen as "ratting out" the company to OSHA. This option is a lot more effective if you still work for the company, unfortunately.

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This won't be popular, but, best practice when you leave an employment is just to move forwards.

You can complain to Occupational Health and Safety and perhaps get an investigation happening and maybe even disrupt or close down the business. Best to be honest to yourself about your motivations whether you're doing it for the coworkers rather than out of malice though. Once you go down the track of rationalising everything as an uninterested philanthropist tirelessly sacrificing themselves on behalf of others it's a slippery slope.

The business closes and your former coworkers are unemployed. Not a great place for them to be. I'm unsure on the USA but in most places OSH does regular inspections.

Also it may come back to burn you in the future.

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    These comments are turning into a discussion of right and wrong rather than attempts to improve the answer and have been moved to chat. Please keep our Be Nice policy in mind and remember that you can always agree to disagree. – Lilienthal Sep 27 '17 at 12:50
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    To have former coworkers without limbs or to have ex-former coworkers? – Coded Monkey Sep 27 '17 at 13:59
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    This answer is better than commenters think it is. It's a reality that some industries are essentially OSHA-proof. Small company pays fines, goes bankrupt, staff starts new company, buys assets of old company, continues doing exact same work with same equipment. Net result: some lawyers make money, some people are unemployed for a while, and OSHA shows up six months later, if ever. Just because reality sucks doesn't mean it's not reality. – barbecue Sep 27 '17 at 17:56
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    On the short run, coworkers might get unemployed and this may be bad for them. On the long run, if such behavior is always accepted, things may worsen for all other workers because not caring about the safety of the employees becomes an advantage in the competition. Endangering employees must lead to a disadvantage or it will be done regularly to save costs and be more competitive. – Thern Sep 28 '17 at 8:36
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    @barbecue Just because reality sucks, doesn't mean we should lie down and let the negatives propagate. If everyone ignores it, the problem doesn't go away either. At least by acknowledging it and having these parties involved, you create more barriers to unsafe environments. Elimination may not be an option; but prevention and a change in attitudes is necessary if there is any intention to make progress. You're essentially saying "They can do it again with some inconveniences, so lets remove the them so that it is easier to do." Your job should not be competing with your health. – JMac Sep 28 '17 at 12:32

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