Late last year a worker in New York reported to his supervisors that paint fumes were making him and his coworkers sick. Just like every worker in America, he had the right to raise these safety and health concerns to his employer. That’s a protected activity under section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. But days later, he was fired.
Concerned that his rights had been violated, he filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration claiming illegal retaliation in the workplace. Unfortunately, because he missed the 30-day deadline, OSHA wasn’t even able to open a case, let alone help him get justice. This is a frustratingly common occurrence, and our workers deserve better.
Whistleblowers serve a critical function in our society – shining light on illegal, unethical, or dangerous practices that could threaten public welfare in many ways. OSHA protects workers’ right to speak up, enforcing the whistleblower provisions of 22 statutes ranging from public transportation and railroads to health insurance and securities.
Yet more than half of the anti-retaliation complaints we receive every year are 11(c) complaints – meaning they come from workers who have been fired, disciplined, or otherwise punished for raising a safety and health concern on the job. Unfortunately, OSHA’s original whistleblower statute is also our weakest and our most outdated. It’s time for a change.
One of the most basic changes workers need is to extend the deadline for submitting an 11(c) complaint. Thirty days is simply not enough time. All the most recently enacted whistleblower statutes give workers 180 days to file a complaint from the date they were punished. We need to make sure workers who face retaliation for raising safety and health concerns have the same amount of time.
Workers also need help to get back on the job as soon as possible. When a worker files a complaint, the process can be very lengthy – and for someone who has been illegally terminated, every week without a paycheck can be a struggle. OSHA has the authority to order preliminary reinstatement for terminated workers for many other statutes. But when it comes to 11(c), only a District Court can require reinstatement. OSHA needs to be able to do more for these workers, including helping them get back to work right away.
These are just two of several changes that would ensure that workers’ right to a safe workplace OSH Act rights are protected. Protecting whistleblowers means protecting the workforce – and we can’t do that with outdated statutes! To read about all of the proposed changes, watch Assistant Secretary Michaels’ April 29, 2014 testimony before the Senate subcommittee on employment and workplace safety.
OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program enforces the whistleblower provisions of more than twenty whistleblower statutes protecting employees who report violations of various workplace safety, airline, commercial motor carrier, consumer product, environmental, financial reform, food safety, health insurance reform, motor vehicle safety, nuclear, pipeline, public transportation agency, railroad, maritime, and securities laws. Rights afforded by these whistleblower acts include, but are not limited to, worker participation in safety and health activities, reporting a work related injury, illness or fatality, or reporting a violation of the statutes.
Anthony Rosa is the Acting Deputy Director for Whistleblower Protection Programs.