OSHA reforms needed as whistleblower retaliation complaints spike

by Kait Pararas, Program Manager

Published on March 24, 2021

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OSHA reforms needed as whistleblower retaliation complaints spike

As March comes to a close, it marks just over a year since the Covid-19 pandemic began to sweep across the United States, bringing issues of occupational health and safety to the forefront of the American people. Whistleblowers have come forward throughout the pandemic to expose threats to employee safety and public health, from shortages in personal protective equipment to concerns over Covid-19 data manipulation, often times at a high personal cost.

Per the Whistleblower Network News, the past year has seen a record number of whistleblower retaliation complaints to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). In FY 2020, 3,448 whistleblower retaliation complaints were filed with OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program (WPP). 2,539 of these were under Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the nation’s preeminent workplace safety law – nearly a 25% increase from FY 2019.

When creating this Act in 1970, Congress recognized the need for protecting occupational health and safety whistleblowers in both the private sector and federal government, but over time these protections have proven to be inadequate. Over the past year, many workers have been forced to choose between losing their job or becoming sick from Covid-19. Those that have come forward have just one reporting channel – one that has failed to ensure complaints are heard, and retaliation is prevented.

If Congress is serious about protecting workers and their rights, they need to amend the Occupational Safety and Health Act to include the following:

  1. A private right of action for employees to pursue their claims if the Department of Labor declined to file a lawsuit in federal court on their behalf;
  2. Extending the statute of limitations from the current 30 days to 180 days;
  3. Modernizing the law to include the standard whistleblower protections that are now included in every whistleblower anti-retaliation law.

Given the recent spike in complaints, these reforms are urgently needed – particularly as OSHA faces severe internal limitations. An August 2020 report from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General found that improvements to OSHA’s handling of complaints were needed, particularly as staffing shortages and the recent spike combined had severely impacted the WPP’s ability to investigate claims in a timely manner. Several months later, an October 2020 report from the National Employment Law Project found that OSHA had resolved only 2% of Covid-19-related whistleblower retaliation complaints during the first six months of the pandemic.

Congress should move quickly to implement urgently need reforms to the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Join the National Whistleblower Center (NWC) in this fight and ask your representative to take action today to implement needed reforms to the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

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