Whistleblowers covered by one of the 22 statutes administered by the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) will now be able to file complaints online. Previously, workers could make complaints to OSHA by filing a written complaint, calling the agency's 800 number, or calling an OSHA regional or area office. Now, workers may electronically submit a whistleblower complaint through an online form on the OSHA website.
The new online form prompts workers to include basic whistleblower complaint information so they can be easily contacted for follow-up. Complaints are automatically routed to the appropriate regional whistleblower investigators. In addition, the complaint form can also be downloaded and submitted to the agency in hard-copy format by fax, mail, or hand-delivery.
OSHA enforces the whistleblower provisions of many statutes protecting employees who report violations of various workplace safety and health laws, securities laws, and trucking, airline, nuclear power, pipeline, environmental, rail, public transportation, and consumer protection laws.
OSHA's newly approved procedure for whistleblower complaints, which allows individuals to submit a claim 24 hours a day, may lead to an upsurge in the already rising number of whistleblower complaints being filed and provide greater flexibility for employees to meet statutory filing deadlines. The number of whistleblower complaints processed by OSHA jumped from 1,947 cases in 2011 to 2,764 cases in 2012. At a public meeting earlier this year, David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA stated, "I shudder to think of how many complaints we’d receive if more people knew their rights and had more time to file their grievance."
With whistleblower complaints already on the increase in recent years, the change in OSHA’s case filing procedures should serve as a call for employers to review their written whistleblower and anti-retaliation policies. Employers may wish to consider OSHA’s recent action by creating an equally easy way to file an internal complaint electronically. In addition, employers are urged to train (and retrain) their supervisors regarding these policies, and particularly on how to respond if an employee raises a complaint. It is critical for employers to regularly monitor and review their complaint policies and procedures, and make certain that supervisors are trained on how to properly react to an employee filing such a claim.
By encouraging employees to complain internally, employers increase their ability to investigate and redress situations promptly. In addition, doing so decreases the likelihood that employees will seek counsel, an outside agency, or court involvement. A proactive approach to avoiding whistleblower claims, and a swift and appropriate response if complaints are made, is the best way to minimize or entirely avoid this type of employment claim.