The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) works to ensure safe and healthy conditions for working men and women on a national basis, by both setting and enforcing workplace standards, and by providing training, education and assistance to employers and employees, when necessary or requested. The agency also enforces the whistleblower protection provisions of twenty-two different statutes, protecting employees who report violations of consumer protection laws and against employers engaged in particular industries, including airlines, trucking, rail, and public transportation.
Until last week, individuals who took actions under the whistleblower provisions of one of the statutes administered by OSHA, and who believed that they hve been retaliated against because of those actions could make complaints to OSHA either by filing a written complaint or by calling the agency’s toll free telephone number or an OSHA regional or area office. Workers will now be able to electronically submit a retaliation complaint to OSHA by visiting www.whistleblowers.gov.
The online form available on the site will provide to workers who feel that they have been retaliated against because of a “whistleblower” action a method to reach out directly to OSHA for assistance. According to Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels, cited in a recent press release by OSHA, “The ability of workers to speak out and exercise their rights without fear of retaliation provides the backbone for some of American workers’ most essential protections . . . . Whistleblower laws protect not only workers, but also the public at large and now workers will have an additional avenue available to file a complaint with OSHA."
While OSHA periodically has issued regulations related to the filing of whistleblower/retaliation claims in various industries, this is the first time that individuals can file a complaint under any one of the twenty-two statutes by using a single form, available online. The form, along with detailed information on employee whistleblower rights, including fact sheets and instructions on how to submit the form in hard-copy format, if preferred, is available online at www.osha.gov/whistleblower/WBComplaint.html. Complaints submitted online will automatically be routed to the appropriate regional whistleblower investigators.
In addition to the new online form, OSHA also has formulated the Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee (WPAC), which will advise the Secretary of Labor and the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health on ways to improve the fairness, efficiency and transparency of OSHA’s whistleblower investigations, and will begin meeting in various subcommittees on December 10, 2013.
Clearly, it is OSHA’s intent to increase its involvement in the handling of retaliation complaints filed by whistleblowers and, in fact, to encourage the filing of such complaints by increasing the avenues available to employees for doing so. Employers should become knowledgeable about the types of actions upon which retaliation claims can be based, and should train supervisors and managers to conduct thorough and objective investigations, and to effectively document their findings, before taking such actions against an employee who previously has filed a report that could be characterized as a “whistleblower” claim under federal law.