Whistleblowers are crucial to enforcing labor laws.
It’s impossible for any enforcement agency to accurately monitor bad behavior by individual employers. The only reliable way to catch bad actors is for employees to know their rights and speak up when those rights are violated.
But there are a lot of problems with that system. Employers have enormous power over potential whistleblowers, which may stop employees from speaking up in the first place. And if they do, employers might punish those individuals in any number of ways, just to discourage future whistleblowers from acting.
That’s why many labor laws have whistleblower protections included. There are a handful of federal agencies that investigate these cases, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is one of them.
What Are OSHA’s Whistleblower Protections?
OSHA’s whistleblower protection program enforces 22 separate whistleblower statutes related to worker health and safety.
Broadly speaking, these protections mean that an employer can’t retaliate against you for:
- Complaining about unsafe working conditions to the employer, OSHA, or another government agency
- Refusing to work in unsafe conditions under very specific circumstances
- Exercising any other right or protected activity covered by the Occupational Safety and Health Act
- Reporting violations of the other 21 statutes whose whistleblower provisions OSHA enforces
The last can be a little confusing because OSHA protects whistleblowing for laws that fall under other jurisdictions. Let’s take one example.
Say your company violates part of the Clean Air Act. You report the violation and get fired because of it. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will investigate and punish them for the original infraction (polluting the air). But OSHA will be the one to investigate and punish them for retaliating against you.
It’s divided up because the EPA isn’t equipped to enforce labor laws, but OSHA is.
What Does Retaliation Mean and Include?
Retaliation simply means revenge. Employers who punish a worker for reporting a potential violation of the law are guilty of retaliation.
The long list of activities considered to be retaliation includes things like:
- Reduction of wages or work hours
- Denial benefits, overtime, or promotion
- Reassignment that impacts opportunities for promotion
- Firing, laying off, or failure to hire/rehire
- Intimidation or threats
- Corrective actions or punishment
Any “unfavorable personnel action” can trigger whistleblower protection.
How Do You File a Whistleblower Complaint with OSHA?
Any worker can file a whistleblower complaint with OSHA. These complaints can be made orally, by calling or walking into any OSHA office. They can also be submitted in writing, by submitting a form online, or by fax, email, mail, or hand delivery to an OSHA office. The complaint can be written in any language.
To find a local office, call 1-800-321-6742 or visit www.osha.gov/html/RAmap.html.
According to OSHA, the complaint must meet four basic elements:
- You engaged in a protected activity.
- our employer knew or suspected the activity was protected.
- Your employer retaliated against you.
- Your protected activity motivated or contributed to your employer’s retaliation.
Complaints have to be filed within a certain number of days after the incident. The length of time varies based on which statute you blew the whistle under—in some cases, it’s as little as 30 days. If you wait too long, your complaint will have to be thrown out.
Complaints about safety violations can be filed anonymously, but whistleblower complaints can’t. You need to respond to any follow-up questions that OSHA asks. Since the complaint is specific to you, OSHA will give your name to your employer as part of their investigation.