OSHA Whistleblower Complaints Set Record
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) set a record for fiscal year 2014, when it investigated more than 3,000 federal whistleblower cases for the first time in the agency’s history. That was 3,060 cases was 91 cases more than in FY 2013.
While OSHA did not mention the number of whistleblower complaints that were rejected before engaging in an investigation, but a recent study suggests that only about 41 percent of such complaints survived their initial screening process between 2011 and 2013.
In addition to the 3,060 new cases being investigated in FY 2014, final determinations were also made on 3,271 complaints, as well. That number that was virtually identical to FY 2013. About 25 percent of cases were settled or went before an administrative or federal judge. Only 64 cases, or two percent, resulted in a “merit” decision, which is one that OSHA referred to a judge after all parties failed to come to terms. OSHA dismissed more than half (1,652) of the complaints, while 22 percent of complaints were withdrawn by complainants. Many of those, however, were withdrawn because the case was “kicked out,” or re-filed in federal court.
One possible explanation for the increased number of complaints could be the huge settlement amounts in some cases, which were covered pretty heavily in the media. A number of very high-profile whistleblower complaints resulted in punitive damage awards well into six figures. Another potential reason for the increase could very well be an increased effort to encourage cases regarding truck driver safety, especially with regard to driving too many hours. A memorandum of understanding between OSHA and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration was signed last year that charged OSHA with handling cases involving commercial truck drivers alleging retaliation for reporting safety issues.
Because of that and many other factors, OSHA is actually predicting that new reporting rules combined with the introduction of online filing could actually increase the number of case filings even more.
Of the new cases, almost all were safety-related, with nearly 60 percent filed under the anti-retaliation clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. That number is also expected to climb significantly, because OSHA plans to use a “reasonable cause” threshold to determining if a case should be investigated and that threshold is much lower than the current “preponderance of the evidence” standard.
While OSHA is still having to stretch its resources, it seems clear that they are trying to provide the best oversight possible. If OSHA is setting records for whistleblower complaints, it indicates employers are not doing what they need to. Regardless of OSHA resources, employers are always responsible when they violate workplace safety standards, and workers are entitled to be free of retaliation when they complain about safety conditions at their workplace.