OSHA has launched a new online tool to make it easier for whistleblowers to file complaints. Here’s the official press release.

Employers are voicing lots of concerns and questions about the new tool. Here are some answers.

What’s Changing Exactly?

The online form gives employees another avenue to voice retaliation complaints. Before the launch of the new tool, employers could either file a written complaint or call an OSHA office.

Why A New Tool?

The online form is part of an overall Department of Labor effort to decrease the formal requirements for filing complaints.

What All Does OSHA Investigate?

Few employers realize that OSHA is empowered to investigate far more than safety claims. It enforces the whistleblower provisions of 22 federal statutes, including alleged violations of securities, environmental, nuclear power, trucking, air and rail laws — as well as the Affordable Care Act. That said, the majority (61.2%) involve reports of OSHA health and safety violations. Whistleblower claims under Dodd-Frank typically go straight to federal court and thus don’t stay with OSHA.

Will This Increase Frivolous Claims?

Potentially. According to OSHA’s latest stats, only 2% of complaints are found to merit action by the agency. About three-fourths are dismissed or withdrawn, with the remainder being settled.

Most employment experts believe that the increased ease of filing offered by the online tool could significantly increase the sheer number of claims and some feel it could drive the 2% meritorious claim down to 1% or even lower.

What Penalties Do Employers Face?

Penalties include reinstatement, civil awards, criminal sanctions (particularly under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act) and potential “bounty” fees paid to a successful whistleblower. The latter can be quite hefty, as demonstrated by the $14 million awarded to an anonymous SEC whistleblower in October and the $104 million awarded to a convicted felon, as detailed previously here on the Blawg.

What Should Employers Do?

Stop reading this and immediately go do the following:

  • implement easily accessible and highly visible internal employee complaint mechanisms;
  • train all employees on the use of those mechanisms;
  • train all managers on how to handle complaints and the importance of avoiding retaliation;
  • promptly and thoroughly investigate any and all complaints and take appropriate action;
  • never ever ever retaliate against an employee who brings a safety, securities or other serious concern to the company’s attention; and
  • visit OSHA’s official Whistleblower Protection Site, where you’ll find FAQs, fact sheets, training aids, tips for small businesses and other helpful resources.

(Source: OSHA. Photo Credit: Alina Ku-ku/Shutterstock)