Good Works Chicago: Addressing Health and Safety in the Workplace

Camille Smith |

On this week’s episode of Good Works Chicago, IWJ's Legal Director, Julian Medrano, interviewed Maria Gutierrez, who leads IWJ’s National Occupational Health and Safety program. Maria leads IWJ's know-your-rights trainings to workers through the Susan Harwood program of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). She has more than eight years of experience in the field. She is currently working towards her PhD in Occupational and Environmental Health from the University of Illinois-Chicago.

On the program, she highlighted that many employers who engage in the immoral and illegal practice of wage theft are usually the same employers who fail to provide safe working conditions for employees. Low-wage and immigrant workers are frequently taken advantage with regards to their workplace rights and safety. It’s an injustice IWJ and our network of affiliates are working hard to address.

The OSHA trainings consist of several steps training workers and providing them with the tools to address on unethical employers. First, trainers inform workers of their legal rights. Then, they teach workers how to identify hazards in the workplace and how to control those hazards. Further, workers are shown how communicate the risks they find. Finally, the workers are encouraged to take action and spread their new knowledge to their co-workers.

If a worker finds a health or safety problem in the workplace, they should first identify the problem to their employer and suggest solutions. If the employer refuses to take action, they can make an OSHA complaint. By law, an employer cannot fire an employer for filing an OSHA complaint. Filed complaints must be made 180 days after the violation occurs by either contacting OSHA nationally at 1-800-321-OSHA or regionally in the Chicago area at (312) 353-2220.

Worker’s rights violations can occur in any workplace. However violations related to health and safety are most prevalent in the construction, restaurant and healthcare industries. Too frequently, these violations go unreported. Anyone who suffers an injury on the job should tell their employer immediately and seek an Occupational Doctor. Employers are not obligated to go to the company doctor, as a caller from the hotline brought up, company doctors may not always be looking out for a worker’s best interests. It is also extremely important to make the record show the injury was occupational.

Because unsafe working conditions and wage theft often go hand-in-hand, IWJ recently opened Chicago’s first free Wage Theft Legal Clinic which is available for consultation for wage theft victims on Mondays from 5 p.m. until 8 p.m.. Workers can call the hotline at (773) 998-1320 if they believe their employer has wrongfully stolen their wages. The Wage Theft Clinic is located at 19 W. Jackson Blvd. at the John Marshall Law School. All messages will be answered within 24 hours.