Study: ‘Disturbingly high’ fraction of American workers subject to hostile work environments; even more think they may work in dangerous conditions

Hostility in the workplace is so prevalent that roughly one in five Americans say they’ve experienced it. The finding is part of a study released Monday by researchers at the Rand Corporation, Harvard Medical School, and UCLA. The researchers say the figure is “disturbingly high.”

The first-of-its-kind survey of 3,000 American workers details findings about the prevalence and distribution of working conditions across the American workforce by age, gender, and education.

Photo by Irina Griskova/iStock / Getty Images

While initial news coverage of the survey’s findings this week is focused on the 20 percent of workers who’ve experienced hostility in the workplace, we noticed another statistic worth attention:  more than one-half of American workers report that they are “exposed to unpleasant or potentially dangerous working conditions” like vibrations, loud noise, extreme temperatures, smoke, fumes, powder, dust, or vapors, or chemical products or infectious materials “one quarter of the time or more at work.”

That’s a lot of Americans who think they’re being subjected to potentially hazardous environments at work. The study’s findings don’t examine what happens to workers who raise concerns about these prevalent dangers. This raises important questions about what American workers are doing about the dangers and whether they know they can speak up about them without penalty.

State and federal occupational health and safety laws require safe working environments. Beyond that minimum requirement, various state and federal laws go farther to protect employees who speak up and report concerns about potential workplace hazards.

For example, here in Minnesota, the Minnesota Whistleblower Act protects employees from retaliation when they report unsafe conditions at work that they suspect violate laws and regulations. So long as the report is made in good faith (not knowingly false or in reckless disregard of the truth) and there are actual workplace safety laws implicated by the belief that conditions are or may be unsafe (OSHA rules, for example), employers cannot punish employees for raising the concerns. 

In another recent blog post, we discussed the difference between illegal and unfair-but-not-necessarily-illegal hostile work environments. For the one in five Americans facing hostility in the workplace the key question to tell the difference is, “why?”  If the hostility is based upon the employee’s membership in a protected class (age, gender, national origin, race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, service member, etc.), then there’s an argument it’s illegal hostility.  If, as we sometimes say, the hostility is happening because of an “equal opportunity jerk,” it’s harder to argue the practices are illegal.

If an employee suspects the hostile treatment is based on his or her membership in a protected class (or is blatantly illegal, like the study’s findings on unwanted sexual attention or harassment), and the employee reports his or her concerns to the employer, the employer cannot penalize the employee for doing so.  Just like the anti-retaliation provisions of the Minnesota Whistleblower Act, Minnesota state law contains anti-reprisal provisions for reporting illegal harassment or treatment based on one’s membership in a protected class.

The Rand study released this week also contains a few bright notes on the state of the American worker and workplace.  For instance, more than one-half (58 percent) of American workers describe their boss as supportive, and 56 percent say that they have very good friends at work. While those numbers could be even higher, they support the notion that work is a place where many find a lot of meaning. So when something goes awry at work, it’s okay (and important) to seek help—work is such a huge part of our lives. If you're interested in talking to us about a situation at work, book a free phone consultation.