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How Does OSHA Offer Whistleblower Protection?

You tell your manager that you suspect asbestos flakes are falling from the bathroom ceiling in your building. But they shrug off your complaint. Weeks later, you tell your manager's superior about the problem, but they make it clear they're not interested in "making a big deal" out of it.

You file a safety and health complaint with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). This makes you a whistleblower. The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) requires employers to provide employees with safe working conditions. In an apparent act of retaliation, your manager says you're being transferred to another office halfway across the country.

In another scenario, you're an employee at a large, publicly traded company. You discover significant financial misconduct. The company has been artificially inflating its stock price. If true, this information indicates a violation of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. You report your evidence to the appropriate authorities. Shortly after, you receive several negative performance evaluations and a demotion.

Thankfully, OSHA whistleblower protections are on your side. Employers are not allowed to take "unfavorable personnel actions" (i.e., retaliate) against you.

To assert your rights, it's important to understand how OSHA whistleblower protections work, how to file a claim, the time limits for filing a complaint, and other important matters. Below is a summary of these protections.

OSHA Whistleblower Protection at a Glance

A whistleblower is a person who exposes information or activities within a private, public, or government organization that are illegal, unethical, or harmful to public safety and interest. If you're considering “blowing the whistle," you might be hesitant to come forward because you fear that doing so will cause you to lose your job. Whistleblower laws protect you from adverse personnel actions.

Whistleblower laws exist on a local, state, and federal level. OSHA, a division of the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), plays a significant role in safeguarding whistleblowers. OSHA's Whistleblower Protection Program enacts the anti-retaliation provisions of over 20 federal laws.

OSHA protects employees who report misconduct covering a wide range of areas, including:

  • Workplace safety and health
  • Anti-money laundering laws
  • Antitrust
  • Aviation safety
  • Commercial motor carrier
  • Consumer product
  • Environmental
  • Financial reform
  • Food safety
  • Health insurance reform
  • Maritime
  • Motor vehicle safety
  • Nuclear
  • Pipeline
  • Public transportation agency
  • Railroad
  • Securities
  • Tax

Whistleblower Laws

The OSHA-enforced whistleblower laws include:

Who Is Covered?

OSHA's whistleblower laws apply to a wide group of people. Employees who believe they have experienced retaliation because of whistleblowing in any of the above areas or under relevant laws should file a complaint with OSHA. Contractors and subcontractors are also covered.

It's important to remember that it doesn't matter whether the claim is true. For example, it doesn't matter whether that flaky substance falling from the bathroom ceiling is asbestos, as long as you made your claim in good faith.

Legal Meaning of 'Unfavorable Personnel Actions'

Whistleblowers aren't protected from legitimate discipline. Being reprimanded for a legitimate reason after reporting a violation doesn't mean you're facing retaliation. Context is key. Reprimands for performance issues that weren't mentioned before you blew the whistle could be a red flag.

If you can show that retaliation was a contributing or motivating factor in any of the following actions, they may be acts of retaliation:

  • Termination (firing or layoffs)
  • Demotion
  • Discipline
  • Reduction, change of hours
  • Denial of promotion
  • Reassignment that affects promotion prospects
  • Blacklisting
  • Denying benefits
  • Failing to hire or rehire

Deadlines for Filing

There are time limits for filing a whistleblower complaint with OSHA. Limits range from 30 to 180 days, depending on the applicable federal law. For example, you have 180 days to file a whistleblower complaint (from the date of the retaliatory "unfavorable personnel action") if your original complaint to OSHA alleged a violation of the Federal Rail Safety Act. However, you only have 30 days if you report a violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

OSHA Whistleblower Protection: Filing a Complaint

If you believe you've been retaliated against in the workplace because you reported a violation of workplace safety or gross misconduct, you may choose to file a complaint. The easiest way to do so is via OSHA's Online Whistleblower Complaint Form.

Alternatively, you may choose to make an oral complaint (either walk-in at any OSHA office or by telephone). Or you may make one in writing in any language.

Keep in mind that you may not file an anonymous claim. Also, be sure to omit any witness names (or their contact information) in your complaint since it might be shared with your employer.

To assert your rights as a protected whistleblower, you'll have to address the following key elements:

  1. You participated in a protected activity under whistleblower protection law, such as reporting a legal violation;
  2. Your employer was aware of, or suspected, your involvement in the protected activity;
  3. Your employer retaliated against you with adverse action; and
  4. The adverse action taken by your employer was influenced or connected to your protected activity

Learn More About OSHA Whistleblower Protection From a Lawyer

If you've been fired or mistreated by your employer for reporting a violation of federal law, such as failing to provide a reasonably safe workplace, you may be protected as a whistleblower. Learn more about whether you have a valid claim and how to proceed by speaking to a local employment lawyer today.

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Next Steps

Contact a qualified workplace safety attorney to make sure your rights are protected.

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