The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced on August 1, 2011 that it is implementing measures to strengthen its Whistleblower Protection Program.

Whistleblower protection laws prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who report violations of workplace safety. Employees have the right to ask OSHA to inspect their employer’s workplace whenever they believe there is a serious safety hazard or they believe that their employer is not following OSHA safety rules. If the employer learns the identity of the employee who filed the complaint, the employer may not retaliate or discriminate against the employee in any way. For example, the whistleblowing employee cannot be fired, transferred, denied a raise, have his or her hours reduced, or be punished in any way for filing a complaint with OSHA.

OSHA is overhauling the whistleblower program in response to an audit conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GOA) in 2009 and 2010. The GOA found problems related to transparency and accountability, training for investigators and managers, and internal communications. OSHA also conducted an internal audit that focused on program structures, operational procedures, investigative processes, budget and equipment issues.

Significant changes to OSHA’s whistleblower program include:

  • Restructuring –  The whistleblower program will report directly to the Assistant Secretary of Labor. Beginning with its fiscal 2012 budget, OSHA established a separate line item for the whistleblower program to better track its activities. OSHA also added 25 new investigators.
  • Training – OSHA will hold a national whistleblower training conference in September. The agency will also offer several other investigator training events, and will attempt to ensure that all investigators and supervisors receive mandatory training courses by the end of the year.
  • Program Policy –  OSHA will issue a new edition of the Whistleblower Investigations Manual that updates current procedures.
  • Internal Systems – OSHA has modified the data collection system and strengthened the audit program to ensure that complaints are handled on a timely basis.

OSHA retaliation claims have significantly increased in the past year in both union and non-union facilities. The danger for an employer is that even where the underlying safety and health complaint has no merit, the employer can still be held liable for retaliation against the whistleblowing employee.