Mary E. Sullivan: Dealing with imminent danger in the workplace


One of the most important things the labor movement has brought to workers is ensuring greater protections for workplace safety and health. That concept is threaded throughout the foundation and history of labor and remains a cornerstone principle of unionism.

Every April 28, we observe Workers Memorial Day, which is dedicated to remembering workers who died or became seriously injured while doing their jobs. The day is also used to renew our commitment to safer workplaces. While we mourn for the dead, we must keep fighting for the living.

Labor unions have been key to advancing workplace safety and health protections throughout history. In 1970, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, known as OSHA, was passed, creating federal standards for workplace safety. However, OSHA primarily protected private sector workers, and there was no state law to protect public employees in New York.

In 1980, CSEA led the way to New York State passing the Public Employee Safety and Health (PESH) Act, which gives state and local government employees in New York the same level of workplace safety and health protections as workers covered by OSHA. The PESH Law, considered one of the strongest state safety and health laws in the nation, covers most CSEA members.

The PESH Law also created the state PESH Bureau. Like OSHA at the federal level, PESH is charged with investigating and intervening in extreme situations where imminent danger is present.

Imminent danger, a situation where a hazard arises in the workplace that could immediately cause serious injury or death, can become present in any workplace at any time. OSHA and PESH have special inspection procedures they follow if a worker contacts them and states that the situation they are reporting involves an imminent danger situation. In those cases, they will send an inspector as soon as possible.

Too often, workers do not report instances of imminent danger and that can lead to tragic outcomes. One of the most common reasons workers won’t report these instances is out of fear of retaliation from the employer.

Nobody should have to make the choice between their job and their life. That’s where our union, PESH and OSHA come in.

At any time, any worker can contact PESH or OSHA if they believe imminent danger is present. PESH typically responds to state or local government issues, while OSHA will handle situations in private sector workplaces.

However, a call to either one will result in the proper authority investigating. It is important to note that both the PESH and OSHA laws protect workers against potential retribution; you cannot be retaliated against for reporting an incident of imminent danger.

If you ever believe that you are being placed in a situation of imminent danger in your workplace, I encourage you to make two phone calls as quickly as you can. First, call your union representative. Quite often, since your leaders are with you in the workplace, they can intervene faster and stop a potentially dangerous situation from becoming a deadly one. Second, call either PESH or OSHA, which will respond quickly to make a determination if imminent danger exists. You could save precious lives, including your own.

Along with PESH and OSHA, CSEA is fortunate to have one of the largest and most comprehensive Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Departments in the nation. Our wonderful OSH staff is dedicated to protecting you and ensuring your right to a safe and healthy workplace.


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