What to do now
Employers should not only expect an increase in OSHA investigations and inspections, but investigations and inspections will probably be more intensive and time-consuming. As Figure 2 illustrates, the number of cases that OSHA has completed is at an all-time high. To minimize the chance of coming into OSHA investigators’ crosshairs, employers should take several steps:
Review and update health and safety programs: Employers need to consider how best to promote a culture where employees feel comfortable raising concerns. Rather than a punitive approach to safety hazards, employers should consider incentive programs that encourage workers to raise concerns and report problems to the appropriate people. Along with safety program incentives, employers should review training procedures and implement any needed changes.
Educate employers, managers, and supervisors: When workers have concerns, they should know who to contact. Employees should know exactly what steps to take in order to raise safety concerns without fear of reprisal. In some cases, a suggestion box, hotline, or anonymous email system that is managed by someone other than a person in their direct line of reporting may be the best approach. HR and legal advisors should be involved in this process as well. Managers and supervisors should receive training about how to manage employee safety complaints, including preventing any retaliatory conduct. They should also be trained about how to escalate employee concerns up the chain of command when necessary.
Put everything in writing: Thorough documentation can help employers minimize liability when workers file a whistleblower complaint with OSHA. Companies should be sure to carefully abide by all OSHA reporting requirements. And if an injured worker is ever disciplined for violating safety regulations, managers and supervisors should specifically record why the discipline occurred to ward off potential retaliation claims.
Employers must understand the implications of OSHA’s new emphasis on whistleblower investigations and inspections. By taking appropriate steps, companies can minimize the number of potential whistleblower complaints that employees file and lessen the impact and liability they face if OSHA targets them.
Richard D. Alaniz is a senior partner at Alaniz Schraeder Linker Farris Mayes, LLP., a national labor and employment firm based in Houston. He is a prolific writer on labor and employment law and conducts frequent seminars to companies and trade associations. Questions can be addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org, or telephone 281-833-2200.