The Complete Guide to Whistleblower Labor Laws
A whistleblower is defined as someone who informs the authorities about a person or organization engaged in illegal or unacceptable behavior. OSHA's whistleblower laws protect employees from employer retaliation, such as dismissal, discipline, harassment, and demotion. These are the important things to know about whistleblower labor laws.
Seventeen Acts protect whistleblowers, which protect qualified employees from the following:
- Occupational Safety & Health Act (OSH Act) for complaints filed by protected employees about workplace safety and health hazards
- Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA) for complaints filed by protected employees about commercial motor vehicle safety
- Asbestos Hazard emergency Response Act (AHERA) for complaints filed by protected employees about environmental violations for asbestos in elementary or secondary schools
- International Safety Container Act (ISCA) for complaints filed by protected employees about unsafe cargo containers
- Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 (ERA) for complaints filed by protected employees about nuclear safety laws or regulations
- Clear Air Act (CAA), Safety Drinking Water Act (SDWA), Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA), Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), ToxicSolid Waste Disposal Act (SWDA), and Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) for complaints filed by protected employees about environmental laws and regulations
- Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century (AIR21) for complaints filed by protected employees about federal air carrier safety laws
- Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) for complaints filed by protected employees about federal mail, wire, bank, or securities fraud as well as any federal law provisions violations of shareholder fraud
- Pipeline Safety Improvement Act (PSIA) for complaints filed by protected employees about pipeline safety
- Federal Rail Safety Act (FRSA) for complaints filed by protected employees about railroad security, safety, gross fraud, waste, or abuse of federal grants
- National Transit Systems Security Act (NTSSA) for complaints filed by protected employees about security, fraud, waste, or abuse of public transportation, including grant abuse or unsafe conditions
- Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) for complaints filed by protected employees about Consumer Product Safety Commission requirements
Who Can File a Complaint?
If employees believe a violation has occurred, they have the legal right to request an OSHA inspection of their workplace. Employees can also file a complaint if they believe that their safety is in danger. An attorney or an authorized representative, such as a labor organization, social worker, member of the clergy, nonprofit group, spouse, or government official, can also file a complaint on an employee's behalf.
The above 17 Acts protect applicable whistleblowers' right to the following activities:
- Initiating, testifying, assisting, or participating in a proceeding
- Violation complaint
The above 17 Acts protect applicable whistleblowers from the following employer retaliation:
- Firing or laying off
- Denying overtime or promotion
- Denial of benefits
- Failure to hire or rehire
- Reassignment affecting prospects for promotion
- Reducing pay or hours
How to File a Complaint with OSHA
OSHA accepts whistleblower complaints via letter, telephone, and walk-in meeting. You can contact OSHA at 1-800-321-6742 or visit www.osha.gov to find a local OSHA office near you. You can also complete the online form provided on the complaint website.
Each whistleblower law requires complaints to be filed within a certain time period of the alleged retaliatory action. These time periods vary from 30 to 180 days, depending upon what statute the action falls under.
The following Acts require employees to report a discrimination complaint within 30 days after the occurrence: OSH Act, CAA, CERCLA, SWDA, FWDA, FWPCA, SDWA, and TSCA.
ISCA requires employees to report a discrimination complaint within 60 days after the occurrence.
The following Acts require employees to report a discrimination complaint within 90 days after the occurrence: AIR21, SOX, and AHERA.
The following Acts require employees to report a discrimination complaint within 180 days of the occurrence: STAA, ERA, PSIA, FRSA, NTSSA, and CPSIA.
Employees or their representatives must provide the following information to OSHA to determine the severity of a hazard:
- How many employees work at the site and how many are exposed to the hazard?
- How and when are workers exposed?
- What work is performed in the unsafe or unhealthful area?
- Have employees been informed or trained about the hazardous conditions?
- What process and/or operation is involved?
- How often and for how long do employees work at the task that leads to their exposure?
- Have any attempts been made to correct the problem?
After receiving a timely complaint, OSHA will contact the employer. If no reconciliation is met, OSHA will conduct an investigation. If OSHA finds valid complaints under the OSH Act, AHERA, or ISCA, it will refer the problem to Solicitor's Office to take legal action.
Meritless complaints are dismissed. For those with merit, OSHA will issue a letter to the employer, requiring he or she amends any of the following committed offenses: withholding whistleblower wage or firing whistleblower. OSHA also reimburses the whistleblower for any attorney or expert witness fees.
Whistleblowers protect by STAA have the Solicitor's Office conduct litigation, though sometimes a private party will. The other Acts usually have private parities conduct litigation.
Employees who file false, trivial, or deliberately malicious complaints can be fined up to $1,000 under AIR21, SOX, PSIA, FRSA, NTSSA, and CPSIA.
Objections to OSHA's determination can be made to the Department of Labor's Office of Administrative Law Judges (OSLJ).
Various Whistleblower Acts
Whistleblower protection is important to all workplace industries, and there are specific whistleblower acts that apply to different types of jobs. Occupational Environmental and Nuclear industries employees are protected by OSH Act, AHERA, CAA, CERCLA, ERA, FWPCA, SDWA, SWDA, and TSCA. Those in the transportation industry are protected by FRSA, ISCA, NTSSA, PISA, STAA, and AIR21. Consumers and investors are protected by SOX and CPSIA.
You can read more about the specific whistleblower laws enforced by OSHA on the U.S. Department of Labor worker protection page, the statute page, and the general facts and rights page.
State Whistleblower Laws
Some states protect state employees, public and or private section employers, all employers, or no employees.
- States that protect state employees are: Alabama, Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma, Washington, and West Virginia.
- States that protect public and private sector employers: Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Tennessee.
- States that protect public sector employers: Alaska, Delaware, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Utah.
- State that offer no protection: Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
- North Dakota protects private employers; South Carolina protects government employers; and Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Michigan protect all employers.
For more about a State Whistleblower Laws, you can visit the National Conference of State Legislatures page.