In 1982, the Regan administration enacted a transportation policy change called the Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA).
This Act protects any employee who drives or operates a vehicle as part of their job.
The policy gave employees the right to refuse to drive unsafe or unlawful vehicles under certain conditions.
Further, the STAA states that drivers can’t be fired or punished by their employers for refusing to operate an unsafe vehicle.
In this article, we’ll go over the rules surrounding whether or not a business can force someone to drive in dangerous conditions.
Protections for Employees
There are several ways the U.S. Department of Transportation and the STAA protects employees who drive vehicles for their jobs.
We’ll cover the three most common below.
1) Your employer can’t fire you for refusing to drive a vehicle.
Suppose an employee has to drive a forklift as part of their job.
One day, they notice that the hydraulics of the lift are acting up, and they fear that the lift may malfunction and fall.
This could injure the driver or another person in the warehouse, in addition to damaging tools and other materials.
The employee goes to their supervisor and explains the problem, only to hear that the management refuses to fix the problem.
Further, they expect the employee to drive the forklift anyway.
Under the STAA, you would have the right to refuse this order, and your employer cannot legally fire you for doing so.
However, you should make sure you’ve met the following two requirements:
- Your apprehension should be reasonable, and any other “reasonable” person would agree with your fear of bodily injury.
- You must give your employer a reasonable chance to fix the problem. Further, you need to document this chance in case they contest this fact later.
2) Your employer can’t fire you for filing a complaint.
If you still feel pressured to drive an unsafe vehicle, you may file a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Employers cannot legally fire someone for filing a complaint, as doing so would result in huge fines and potential lawsuits.
3) Your employer can’t fire you if you might file a complaint.
Upper manager will generally know when a driver is not happy about the state of the vehicle they’re driving.
They might think that you’re going to file a complaint, and choose to fire you for a different reason before this happens.
Even in this case, they are technically in violation of the STAA.
Employers can’t fire someone because they might make a complaint against them.
However, such a situation can be difficult to prove in court.
You’ll have to show that you were fired because of the suspicion of an OSHA complaint, and not for any other reason.
This is a case where documentation is critical.
Filing a Complaint with OSHA: The Basics
There are several steps to go through when filing a complaint against your employer.
You need to make sure you hit all of these points in order to make sure you have all your bases covered.
Before you File:
Step 1: Make sure that your complaint is either a genuine hazard or a true regulatory violation.
Step 2: Ask your company to fix the problem (and document your conversation).
- Be very specific about what the problem actually is so the company knows what steps they need to take to fix it.
- Explain why it needs to be fixed. Is it a violation of a regulation? Could you receive a traffic ticket if you drive the vehicle?
Step 3: Gather evidence. You want to make sure that when the regulators examine your case, you can show them that you covered all your bases.
- Take pictures or video of the violation or safety hazard.
- Enlist a witness to look at the problem with you. Ideally, you’ll also want a witness for when you ask your employer to fix the problem.
- Keep detailed, dated notes about the steps you took to ask your employer to fix the problem. Keep additional notes which detail their responses.
Filing your Complaint
In most cases, you’ll file your complaint online with OSHA.
If you want to file in writing, you should use certified mail.
This can help you make sure your filing date is correct, and that OSHA actually received your complaint.
Here are some important things to remember when you file:
- You must file within 180 days from the day that either (1) your employer refused to act to make your vehicle safe or legal, or (2) you received notice that you would be laid off.
- Remember to document as much information as you can. For instance, the application will ask for specific names of the employees who discriminated against you, not just the company name.
- Many people who file a grievance decide to hire a lawyer to help them through the process. An attorney can make sure you meet deadlines, and that you gather enough evidence to prove your case.
After you File
Within 60 days of receiving your complaint, an OSHA official will:
- Conduct an investigation about your complaint.
- Make a decision about whether the complaint is valid.
- Notify both parties of their findings in writing.
If they find that your employer refused to provide a safe and legal vehicle and/or wrongfully terminated you, the Department of Labor will issue a preliminary order requiring your employer to provide the appropriate relief.
The following is a list of relief your employer may be ordered to comply with:
- Take action to fix the vehicle(s).
- Reinstate your employment with the same pay and benefits.
- Pay all of your legal fees.
- Pay your back salary with interest.
If part of your job is driving or operating a vehicle, you have the right to ensure your safety.
If you truly feel that you shouldn’t operate your vehicle at work, you have the right to refuse to do so without losing your job.
In both of these cases, you’re protected under federal law so long as you follow certain guidelines and requirements.
If you’re unsure about how to move forward, you should talk with a union representative, or schedule an appointment with an experienced attorney.