OSHA Issues New Final Food Safety Whistleblower Rule
It can’t be denied that among the people on the front lines of the fight for better food safety are food production workers, from field workers to grocery store clerks. However, when they see problems that may cause possible health problems for the people who consume the food they produce, they are often afraid to speak up for fear of retaliation by their employers.
Thankfully, a new final rule propagated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was published last week that defines and provides such workers with whistleblower protections, should they disclose information about possible problems with food safety.
This food safety whistleblower rule comes out of a mandate from the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which was passed by Congress and serves to shift food safety away from an enforcement perspective and lots of penalties to one that is geared more toward preventive controls. To that end, in releasing the new rule, OSHA is taking the position that no food industry worker should be afraid to come forward out of a fear of losing their job.
The new final rule establishes specific procedures for workers to follow if they would like to file retaliation complaints, but it also establishes procedures for OSHA and the employers themselves to follow when they are investigating and responding to such complaints. In addition, the rule describes the burdens of proof, remedies and establishes a statute of limitations, all of which are important to a whistleblower case.
Food workers will be protected whenever they “provided or are about to provide to their employer, the federal government, or the attorney general of a state, information relating to any violation of, or any act or omission the employee reasonably believes to be a violation of” any rules and regulations regarding food safety. They will also be protected from retaliation if they testify or plan to testify, if they assist with investigations or other proceedings or if they refuse to participate in activities that would violate food safety rules.
All retaliation complaints must be made within 180 days of the alleged retaliatory activity, although complaints under the FSMA do not have to be formal. They can be oral or in writing and in any language, in case the complainant doesn’t speak or write English. OSHA officials will then investigate and issue written findings as to whether or not there is reasonable cause to believe that the complaint has merit, and do so within 60 days. If it is determined that workers have been the victims of retaliation, they will be entitled to any number of remedies, including reinstatement, back pay, and possible damages for emotional distress and damage to their reputations.
Food production employers have a responsibility to keep the food supply safe and when a food service worker sees something that may cause a problem, they should be encouraged to report it. Too many people get sick from eating contaminated food every year and this is a key step to preventing that. If you have seen something that worried you while you were on the job and you told someone, only to have your employer fire you, please contact the Hill Law Firm right away, so that we can conduct an investigation and protect your rights under the law. Consultations are always free.