What do OSHA and ethics hotlines have in common? More than you might think.
At forty-five and a half years old, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been protecting worker safety for a long time. In support of the provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act, it protects most non-governmental employees; exceptions include employees in industries (such as mining) that are covered by other federal safety regulations.
Under OSHA, employees have both responsibilities and rights. They are responsible for complying with safety and health standards and all applicable rules and regulations, and are encouraged to take safety precautions, such as wearing personal protective equipment. They have the right (as required of their employers) to a workplace free of recognized hazards, to information about potential hazards, to information about prior accidents and injuries, and to medical exams and safety training required by OSHA standards. They also have other rights, to include the right to freedom from discrimination or retaliation (e.g. whistleblower retaliation) if they exercise any of their OSHA-related rights.
OSHA makes clear that retaliation consists of much more than just being fired or laid off. Employers may be guilty of retaliation for reducing pay or hours, blacklisting, demoting, denying overtime or promotion, disciplining, denying benefits, failing to hire or rehire, intimidating, or making threats to employees, or reassigning them in a way that affects prospects for promotion.
As in any other circumstance, employees may choose to raise health or safety concerns directly with their supervisors or managers, or they may choose to report concerns anonymously through an internal company hotline. They also can contact OSHA in person, online, or by phone, fax, or mail. This information will be kept confidential, according to OSHA’s “how to file a safety and health complaint” web page (see link below).
Employees can also make allegations of whistleblower retaliation directly to OSHA (by law, these allegations will not be anonymous). OSHA’s reach is longer than you might think. Its Whistleblower Protection Program is responsible for administering not only the whistleblower protection provisions of the OSH Act, but also the whistleblower protection provisions of twenty-one other federal statutes, including the Affordable Care Act and Sarbanes-Oxley. OSHA uses pilot programs to explore potential improvement s to its processes.
In March, OSHA introduced a “Whistleblower-Severe Violator Pilot Program” in its Kansas City region. This pilot targets employers that “continually and willfully disregard” the rights of whistleblowers.
In August, OSHA began piloting a new whistleblower review process in its western region. The “Expedited Case Processing Pilot” allows a complainant covered by certain statutes (with a case that meets certain criteria) to ask the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to cease its investigation and issue findings for the department’s Office of Administrative Law Judges to consider. The goal is to “bring about quicker resolution for whistleblowers and their employers regarding claims of retaliation for reporting safety and other concerns on the job.”
As the Society for Human Resource Management’s Lisa Nagele-Piazza commented in her August 26 blog post, “[the pilot] serves as a reminder that employers should have strong anti-retaliation policies in place and should adhere to those provisions.”
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Nagele-Piazza, Lisa. “OSHA Introduces Pilot to Expedite Whistle-Blower Claims,” SHRM.com, August 26, 2016. https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/legal-and-compliance/employment-law/pages/osha-whistle-blower-pilot.aspx
OSHA. “How to File a Safety and Health Complaint,” (web page). https://www.osha.gov/workers/file_complaint.html
OSHA. “Whistleblower Rights.” 2013. https://www.osha.gov/OshDoc/data_General_Facts/whistleblower_rights.pdf
For more information, see the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration website. https://www.osha.gov/