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December 30, 2013
OSHA makes it easier for employees to blow the whistle

Workers who wish to blow the whistle on employers for unsafe working conditions or other matters can now do so electronically. Read on to learn more about the change and why OSHA made it.

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OSHA, which administers federal whistleblower protection laws governing a variety of industries (trucking, airline, nuclear power, environmental, etc.), announced on December 5, 2013. In the past, whistleblowers could only communicate their concerns in writing or by phone (1-800-321-OSHA). Now they can submit complaints electronically via an OSHA web page,

OSHA says the change will make it easier for employees to meet filing deadlines because they can access the form online at any time. Moreover, electronic filing is expected to reduce the time needed to process complaints.

OSHA Administrator David Michaels commented, “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.” In fiscal year 2013, more than 2,900 employees filed whistleblower complaints.

OSHA’s whistleblower regulations prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who raise concerns about violations of laws surrounding workplace safety, environmental protections, and numerous other areas. Among the employee consequences considered “adverse action” under the whistleblower protection laws are firing or laying off, blacklisting, demoting, denying overtime or promotions, disciplining, denial of benefits, failure to hire or rehire, intimidation, threatening, reassignment affecting promotion opportunities, and reducing pay or hours.

While worker advocates perceive the change as a plus, some believe the agency hasn’t gone far enough in protecting whistleblowers from retaliation. Currently, a copy of a whistleblower complaint is sent to the whistleblower’s employer, and many employees face retaliation and firing after submitting their complaints.

In an update on a recent case, a North Carolina trucking company that OSHA ordered to pay more than $1 million in back wages and fines for whistleblower retaliation says it will appeal the citations. OSHA claimed that four former truck drivers were fired after they participated in an inspection audit by the Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. In addition to the monetary penalties, OSHA ordered the company to reinstate the three employees involved in the case who are still alive.

Regarding the North Carolina case, Michaels commented, “Workers in this industry must be able to raise safety concerns with federal officials without fear of retaliation.… Participating in an on-site inspection helps to ensure safer conditions for truck drivers and vehicles on the road. Employers undermining these protections through intimidation and adverse conduct will not be tolerated.”

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