As OSHA beefs up its whistleblower program, employers should brace themselves for more claims and investigations.
Over the last year, OSHA has been developing a “multifaceted plan for strengthening the enforcement of 21 whistleblower laws under its jurisdiction,” according to the agency, which is part of the U.S. Department of Labor. As the figure below demonstrates, the number of cases that OSHA has received is at an all-time high.
As part of its multifaceted plan, OSHA has restructured the whistleblower program and has made changes to its program policy, training, and internal systems. For example, in July 2012, OSHA cited Newark, N.J., demolition and concrete recycling company T. Fiore Demolition with 11 serious safety violations and proposed penalties totaling $47,600. In this case, the investigation was launched after the death of a worker, but more and more frequently, these actions are started by employees reporting some perceived unsafe condition to OSHA.
In addition to complaints to OSHA about unsafe working conditions, any employer could also find itself the target of an OSHA whistleblowing investigation. Employers must understand what the changes in this area mean and how to take proactive steps to avoid potential investigations and create defensible policies in case an investigation arises.
OSHA whistleblower law
OSHA requires employers to provide a “safe and healthful workplace.” Employers can’t discriminate or retaliate against workers for exercising their rights, which include filing an OSHA complaint, taking part in an inspection or talking to an inspector, seeking access to records about exposure and injury, and raising a health or safety complaint. Improper retaliation against employees can include firing or laying off, blacklisting, demoting, denying overtime or promotion, disciplining, denying benefits, failing to hire or rehire, intimidation, threats, harassment, hurting chances of promotion through reassignment, and reducing pay or hours.