Texas Worker Safety Hotline Falters

* Editor's note: This story has been updated with a statement from the Division of Workers' Compensation.
* Correction appended

In thousands of offices and job sites across Texas, employers are required to post notices about the “24-hour” toll-free hotline that employees can use to report unsafe working conditions. It generally can be found on a poster near the company lunch room or water cooler.

“The Safety Violations Hotline Program is a bilingual, 24-hour, toll-free telephone line for employees to report unsafe working conditions,” according to the website of the Division of Workers’ Compensation.

But the hotline has been offering Texas workers a lot less than what’s advertised on the posters — or that the law requires. How long that's been going on isn't clear.

At around midnight Thursday, a recorded message urged callers to call back during “regular business hours” and didn’t allow people to leave a message. On Friday, a spokesman for the division, John Greeley, said the calls were mistakenly forwarded to the agency switchboard. 

He said there was no way to tell how long workers have been unable to access the safety hotline after hours. Greeley said the agency wasn’t aware of the snafu until The Texas Tribune inquired about it. In an email sent a little after 5 p.m. Friday, Greeley said officials corrected the problem.

"After hours calls to the DWC Workplace Safety Violations Hotline telephone number were inadvertently switched over to the general agency message. This system glitch has been corrected," Greeley said. "The hotline will continue to be monitored during office hours. After hours callers can leave a message or if in an emergency, are instructed to contact OSHA or emergency responders."

Under Texas Labor Code 411.081, the Division of Workers’ Compensation, which is part of the Texas Department of Insurance, “shall maintain a 24-hour toll-free telephone service in English and Spanish for reports of violations of occupational health or safety law.”

Workers who call in safety violations can get a live person on the line only between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m during the week, however. If the hotline is working as intended, workers can leave a message after business hours.

Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, chairman of the Texas House Business and Industry Committee, criticized the failure to maintain a robust 24-hour presence for people who are working in unsafe conditions.

“If this is a requirement and the department is not following it, then it begins to demonstrate what many have said — that there is a calloused attitude toward workers, and that concerns me,” he said. “We’ll be looking into it.”

Texas led the nation in worker fatalities in 2012, jumping more than 20 percent at a time when they fell in much of the nation.

Many states have their own occupational safety agency, but Texas does not. Greeley noted that employees can also call the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to report workplace safety violations.

“OSHA is the place where you report immediate jeopardy and injuries and things,” he said. Greeley said the state uses the hotline to “monitor safe conditions” and is not “an immediate thing.”

Correction: A reference to John Greeley, a spokesman for the Division of Workers' Compensation, misspelled his last name.