OSHA Ramps Up Efforts to Protect Whistleblowers

OSHA’s Whistle Blower Protection Program (via SmartHR)

June 18, 2012 –The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is increasing efforts to protect whistle blowers who speak out against employer negligence on workplace hazards. Ever since the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers are responsible for providing a safe work environment by complying with OSHA’s health and safety regulations.  Under the whistleblower provisions,  employers are also prohibited from retaliating against whistleblowers that raise various health and safety concerns. Whistleblowers who feel they have been retaliated against can petition OSHA for an investigation and apply for OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program. OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program is intended to incentivize employees to report unsafe working violations.  Such a program should, in turn, reduce the amount of accidents and injuries in the workplace.

For instance, OSHA recently took action against Anchorage-based North Star Behavioral System for firing an employee who reported unsafe drinking  water, itself a violation of the Safe Drinking and Water Act. The employee had reported that the North Star manager failed to execute his responsibility for providing the facility with safe drinking water. North Star quickly retaliated and disciplined the worker and eventually fired him.  OSHA investigated the incident and found North Star’s disciplinary actions to be unwarranted. In fact, the employee was found to have an outstanding performance record. OSHA has subsequently ordered North Star to reinstate the whistleblower and pay $60,000 in back wages. Additionally, North Star has to reimburse the employee over $200,000 in damages and legal fees. Finally, North Star must post OSHA’s whistleblower protection fact sheet at the facility.

Warning: Biohazard Sign from mybiohazardlabels.com

To avoid lawsuits, employers can post OSHA-compliant signs like the one above in the workplace. (via MyBioHazardLabels.com)

In another case, OSHA found that Norfolk Southern Railway Co. violated the whistleblower protection provisions of the Federal Railroad Safety Act after disciplining and firing multiple whistleblowers who were hurt at work. OSHA has ordered Norfolk Southern to pay over $800,000 in damages and fees, post whistleblower protection rights around the workplace, and provide training to its employees about these rights. According to OSHA, the penalties protect workers’ rights and hold employers accountable.

Danger: High Voltage sign from MySafetySign.com

Electrical injuries are one of the most common occupational injuries. Warn employees with this OSHA-compliant Danger Sign. (Via MySafetySign.com)

OSHA’s regulations are designed to “ensure a safe and healthy workplace for every working man and woman in the Nation.”  Though many claim their efficacy is as yet unproven, OSHA’s efforts to increase whistleblowing have put many employers on their toes. To prevent any lawsuits, employers should take precautions to comply with OSHA regulations and respect whistleblower rights. The high financial cost of doing otherwise is reason enough to comply — and violation deterrence brought on by more protection for whistleblowers in place should help workplaces grow safer.

– N. Gilliat