Protecting whistleblowers is a big job. The Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been tasked by Congress to enforce the whistleblower provisions of 22 statutes. These laws protect workers in many industries across the nation who are brave enough to speak up when they see hazards, fraud or something that could endanger the public. Since 2009, the number of new whistleblower cases filed per year has grown by 37 percent. The president’s budget request for fiscal year 2015 provides needed resources for this growing workload.
One focus in the whistleblower program is making sure employees don’t get fired or retaliated against for reporting injuries. Recently, the Department of Labor filed a first-of-its-kind lawsuit against AT&T on behalf of 13 injured workers who were suspended without pay for allegedly violating a corporate safety standard. But an investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration uncovered a different story. Prompted by complaints from several employees, our investigation found that the company was punishing workers for reporting injuries – which is against the law.
Reporting injuries is a protected activity and a basic worker right under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. If injuries aren’t reported, then hazards can’t be identified and corrected. Discouraging workers from reporting injuries is illegal and can put other workers at risk when serious hazards go uncorrected.
In 2013, OSHA helped to award more than $24 million to whistleblowers across the country who had been retaliated against by their employers for exercising their basic rights. We also launched the new online complaint form for workers who have faced retaliation.
And to make sure that the agency can continue to make a significant, tangible, positive difference in the lives of the American people, the Obama administration has requested an additional $4 million for OSHA’s whistleblower protection budget in FY 2015. With these additional funds, the agency would be able to hire 16 additional whistleblower investigators to conduct swift and thorough investigations of discrimination complaints from workers across the country. These funds would also support 11 new employees to handle OSHA’s training, statistical analysis, IT development and auditing functions, in order to relieve stress on investigative resources. With more staff and better resources, we’ll not only be able to help more people, we’ll also be able to build new interactive online tools to help workers understand and exercise their rights. OSHA will have more ability to educate workers – especially vulnerable workers who don’t speak English – about how to use their rights under the law.
To learn more about OSHA’s whistleblower protection program and find out what the department can do for you, visit www.whistleblowers.gov.
Dr. David Michaels is the assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health.