Whistle-Blowers May Now File Complaints Online

By Roy Maurer Dec 11, 2013
It’s easier than ever for employees to voice their concerns about malfeasance at their worksites, now that whistle-blower complaints can be filed online. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced the change on Dec. 5, 2013.

In the past workers had to either mail in a written complaint or report it by phone to the agency.

“The ability of workers to speak out and exercise their rights without fear of retaliation provides the backbone for some of American workers’ most essential protections,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health David Michaels. “Whistle-blower laws protect not only workers but also the public at large, and now workers will have an additional avenue available to file a complaint with OSHA.”

The new 30-section online form prompts the worker to include basic whistle-blower complaint information so the individual can be contacted for follow-up. Complaints are automatically routed to the appropriate regional whistle-blower investigators, according to OSHA. In addition, the complaint form can also be downloaded and submitted to the agency by fax or mail or in person. The paper and electronic versions are identical and request the same information to initiate a whistle-blower investigation.

When OSHA proposed the form, in January 2013, it said it “will enable workers to electronically submit whistleblower complaints directly to OSHA 24 hours a day, which will provide workers with greater flexibility for meeting statutory filing deadlines.” 

“I shudder to think of how many complaints we’d receive if more people knew their rights and had more time to file their grievance,” Michaels quipped at a public meeting earlier this year. In fiscal year 2013 more than 2,900 workers filed whistle-blower complaints, according to the agency.

“Making it easy for workers to notify OSHA of wrongdoing protects public health and safety,” said Evelynn Brown, J.D., LL.M, founder and chief executive officer of public-policy advocacy group Whistlewatch.org. “Average workers should not be forced to become lawyers to understand their rights nor be made to feel OSHA will ignore the wrongdoing or the reporting worker if they have not met the statutory deadline.”

Additionally, OSHA pointed out that the online form will streamline the agency’s electronic complaint-filing process, reduce complaint-processing time and improve customer service.

Although pleased with the easy online complaint process, Brown sees room for further reforms. “OSHA should find a way to be able to protect the identity of the worker and investigate the matter without jeopardizing the employment of the whistle-blower,” she said, noting that the filing process lacks anonymity. “A copy of all complaints goes directly to the whistle-blower’s employer. In many instances an employee may report wrongdoing to a government agency but not suffer retaliation until their employer has been notified. Employees would be wise to discuss a violation with a qualified rights advocate before filing a complaint to OSHA.”

OSHA enforces the whistle-blower provisions of 22 statutes that protect workers who report violations of laws pertaining to securities, trucking, airlines, nuclear power, pipeline, environmental, rail, public transportation, workplace safety and health, and consumer protection. Detailed information on employee whistle-blower rights, including fact sheets and instructions on how to submit the form in hard-copy format, is available at www.whistleblowers.gov.

Employers should review their whistle-blower and anti-retaliation policies, which should include a clear internal complaint process and supervisor training on how to handle employee claims.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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