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What Rights Do Workers Have When Tornadoes Are Approaching?

By Richard Dahl | Last updated on

At least 15 of the nearly 100 people who died when powerful tornadoes struck six states on Dec. 10 were workers who were ordered to keep working despite the known threat.

The most tragic of the incidents occurred at Mayfield Consumer Products, a candle factory in southwestern Kentucky, where nine workers died while on the job. Survivors said they asked to go home as the forecast grew increasingly dire but were either told to keep working or felt they could be fired if they left.

The day after the tornado struck, employee Elijah Johnson told ABC News, "I asked to leave, and they told me I'd be fired." Five days later, Johnson filed a class-action lawsuit, claiming that the company demonstrated "flagrant indifference" to the safety of its workers that night.

Similar reports emerged in Illinois, where a tornado struck an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, killing six workers. In response, a group of Democratic lawmakers is pressing Amazon for answers. "At least one Amazon driver appears to have been instructed by dispatch to 'keep driving,'" lawmakers wrote. "Because 'we can't just call people back for a warning unless Amazon tells us to do so.'"

These incidents raise questions about procedures that companies are expected to follow when dangerous weather conditions arise. They also raise questions about the rights workers might have at those times to demand greater safety from their employers.

Duties of Employers

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires most businesses to have emergency action plans in place. Still, employers have no legal obligation to send workers home when tornadoes threaten.

"They're never going to make a law or a policy to do that, because it's the private sector," Laura Myers, senior research scientist and director of the University of Alabama's Center for Advanced Public Safety, told The Verge. "They can do what they want to do."

That leaves the emergency action plans that OSHA says most employers should have in place for dealing with tornados.

OSHA says these plans should include evacuation procedures and close attention to identifying the best areas for shelter - small interior rooms on the lowest floor possible.

Plans should also include development of an alarm system and emergency supply kits to be stored in shelter areas.

Finally, employers should emphasize training employees to know what to do during an emergency. OSHA says employers should stage shelter-in-place practices regularly.

Workers' Rights

Some of the Amazon and candle-factory employees said they had no idea what the plans were.

Johnson's lawsuit doesn't speak directly to emergency plans, focusing instead on the company's actions the night of the tornado. But it does raise questions about the company's preparation for such an event.

Typically, workplace injuries are handled administratively through state workers' compensation systems. Workers can sue their employer, as Johnson did in Kentucky. But, as attorney Ron Johnson told WHAS TV in Louisville, plaintiffs must prove that the harm is intentional.

Those are the two legal avenues after disaster strikes. But OSHA points out that workers have rights to demand safe workplaces before that happens.

Those rights include:

  • The right to receive workplace safety and health training in a language they understand.
  • The right to request an OSHA inspection and to speak to the inspector.
  • The right to see the results of tests taken to assess workplace hazards.
  • The right to have access to proper safety equipment.

Possible Steps

Every employee has the right to work in a safe environment, and every employer has a duty to provide it.

If you think your workplace is unsafe, you should raise the issue with your supervisor or employer and remind them that they have a duty. If that doesn't work, you can file a complaint to OSHA and request an inspection.

Whether that would have helped at Mayfield Consumer Products or the Amazon warehouse in Illinois is open to question. But as the old saying goes, it's better to be safe than sorry.

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