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Can Workers Sue Employers for Especially Dangerous Conditions at Work?

Some jobs are inherently dangerous. Firefighting, heavy construction, and police work are just a few examples of high-risk professions. Employers in these professions take steps to mitigate the dangers their employees face. Beyond the clear importance of protecting their valued employees from harm, employers also want to avoid the expense of an injured employee (in terms of lost time, insurance, disability accommodations, and so on) and the potential regulatory and media attention that can come from serious accidents. But at what point can employees sue employers for dangerous conditions at work?

State and federal safety laws and regulations provide broad guidelines for workplace safety. Enforced by the federal and state Occupational Safety and Health Administrations (OSHA), these rules cover most types of high-risk conditions at work. Specific rules address things like workplace air quality, use of ladders, design and use of heavy equipment, and electrical work. In addition to specific rules, state and federal laws also feature what is called the “general duty clause.” This clause requires employers to provide workplaces that are “free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” 29 U.S.C. § 654(a)(1), NRS 618.375(1).

The primary means of addressing workplace safety concerns is to submit a complaint to the Nevada Department of Business and Industry. If the agency determines that a complaint has merit it will arrange for an inspection of the workplace. Findings from the inspection will be reported to the employer, which has a certain amount of time to resolve the dangerous conditions. If the employer fails to adequately address the problem the agency may take enforcement action against the employer to ensure that noncompliant conditions are resolved.

It’s important to note that employees can’t sue to enforce OSHA rules on their own. Instead, workers who file OSHA complaints or who refuse to work in unreasonably dangerous conditions are protected against retaliation by their employers. If an employer fires an employee under such circumstances it may be liable in a lawsuit for wrongful termination. An employee considering these steps should consult with an attorney to craft a sound strategy.

What about workers who are injured at work by unaddressed safety conditions? Even in these situations a worker’s ability to sue the employer may be limited. Workplace injuries are covered by Nevada’s workers’ compensation system, which has two critical features for this analysis. First, workers’ compensation is a no-fault system, meaning that the worker’s injuries are covered without consideration for who or what is responsible for the injury. Second, an employer that purchases workers’ compensation insurance ordinarily cannot be sued for personal injury unless the employer deliberately caused the injury or doesn’t carry enough insurance to cover the kinds of risks that its employees face.

For more than 45 years the law firm of Greenman Goldberg Raby Martinez has helped clients in the Las Vegas area with workplace injuries. If you are concerned about dangerous conditions at your job and you’d like to understand how your legal rights may be affected by taking action to resolve them, call us today for a free attorney consultation. We can be reached at 702-388-4476, or ask us to call you through our contact page.