OSHA Whistleblower Protection

After telling your manager about the appearance of what you suspect to be flakes of asbestos falling from the bathroom ceiling (your office was built in the asbestos-friendly 1950s), he shrugs it off and lays the issue to rest. Weeks later, you tell your manager's superior about the problem, but she makes it clear she's not interested in "making a big deal" out of it. You file a safety and health complaint with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which makes you a "whistleblower." Soon after catching wind of the complaint, your manager tells you you're being transferred to another office halfway across the country, with little explanation why, in what appears to be an act of retaliation. Thankfully, OSHA whistleblower protections are on your side.

In order to assert your right to a safe and healthy workplace, it's important to understand how these protections work, how to file a claim, time limits for complaints, and other important matters. Below is a summary of these protections.

OSHA Whistleblower Protection at a Glance

A whistleblower is any public- or private-sector employee who reports a violation of the law (or of the public trust, in some cases) committed by their employer. Both state and federal laws protect whistleblowers to varying degrees, and for reporting various types of offenses (including sexual harassment or financial fraud). OSHA protections apply to private employers and encompass more than 20 federal laws that may be related to the underlying violation reported by the whistleblower, including the Clean Air Act and the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act. So if you contact OSHA about possible asbestos contamination in the workplace and your employer suspects you were the whistleblower, they are prohibited from taking any "unfavorable personnel actions" (i.e. retaliating) against you.

It's important to remember that it doesn't matter whether the claim is actually true -- whether that flaky substance falling from the bathroom ceiling is in fact asbestos -- as long as you made your claim in good faith. Also, there are time limits for filing a whistleblower complaint with OSHA, ranging from 30 to 180 days depending on the federal law invoked in the original complaint. For example, you have 180 days to file a whistleblower complaint (from the date of the retaliatory "unfavorable personnel action") if your original complaint to OSHA alleged a violation of the Federal Rail Safety Act, but only 30 days if you had reported a violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Legal Meaning of 'Unfavorable Personnel Actions'

Not getting something to which you believe you're entitled (such as a raise or promotion) or being reprimanded for a legitimate reason soon after having reported a violation by your employer doesn't necessarily mean you are being retaliated against. The key is the context. For instance, being reprimanded for performance issues that never were an issue before or lack documentation could be a red flag if you have recently filed an OSHA complaint.

If you can show that retaliation was a contributing or motivating factor in any of the following actions, they may be considered acts of retaliation:

  • Termination (firing or layoffs)
  • Demotion
  • Discipline
  • Reduction, change of hours
  • Denial of promotion
  • Reassignment that affectds promotion prospects
  • Blacklisting

OSHA Whistleblower Protection: Filing a Complaint

If you believe you have been retaliated against in the workplace because you reported a violation of workplace safety and health law, you may choose to file a complaint. The easiest way to do so is via OSHA's Online Whistleblower Complaint Form. Alternatively, you may choose to make an oral complaint (either walk-in at any OSHA office or by telephone) or in writing and in any language. Keep in mind that you may not file an anonymous claim; however, be sure to omit any witness names (or their contact information) in your complaint, since the complaint may be shared with your employer.

In order to assert your rights as a protected whistleblower, you will have to address the following key elements:

  1. You (the employee) engaged in activity protected by the whistleblower protection law, such as reporting a violation of law;
  2. Your employer knew about, or suspected, that you engaged in the protected activity;
  3. Your employer took an adverse action against you;
  4. Your protected activity motivated or contributed to the adverse action.

OSHA Whistleblower Protection: Related Resources

Learn More About OSHA Whistleblower Protection from a Lawyer

If you've been fired or otherwise mistreated by your employer for reporting a violation of federal law, such as failing to provide a reasonably safe workplace, you may be protected as a whistleblower. Learn more about whether you have a valid claim and how to proceed by speaking to a local employment lawyer today.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified workplace safety attorney to make sure your rights are protected.

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