The Corner Cubicle: Will Online Whistleblower Reporting Open up the Floodgates?

Oct. 14, 2013
And if it does, is that a bad thing?

In July, the Office of Management and Budget approved OSHA's proposal to create an online form that would allow workers and their union representatives to file whistleblower-retaliation complaints electronically.  

Currently, whistleblowers can file discrimination complaints by calling or writing to their OSHA regional or area office. When OSHA implements the new procedures, whistleblowers also will have the option of submitting a complaint form via the Internet, or downloading the form and then faxing or mailing it to the agency.

With whistleblower-retaliation complaints already on the rise in recent years, the impending change in OSHA's case-filing procedures should serve as "a call to action for employers," one labor and employment attorney asserts.

"All [employers] should take stock of their internal whistleblower policies, including codes of conduct, anti-retaliation rules and complaint-filing procedures," says Sara Begley, co-global practice group leader of Reed Smith's Labor and Employment Group, in a Forbes article.

"Codes of conduct should be re-publicized, with emphasis on the employer's strong ban on any retaliation against complaining workers."

Begley urges employers to train and retrain their supervisors on the whistleblower policies, and she even recommends that employers develop their own online whistleblower-complaint forms, "to match the ease of filing offered by OSHA."

"OSHA's newly approved procedure for whistleblower-retaliation complaints – which allows individuals to file a claim just by completing a simple online form, available 24 hours a day – is sure to spike the already mushrooming claim rate," Begley says.

Labor and employment attorney Christopher Humber strikes a similar chord in a recent blog post.

"It's unclear from OSHA's case-tracking statistics why the agency perceives a need for relaxed case-filing procedures," says Humber, who is a shareholder in the Washington, D.C., office of Ogletree Deakins.  

While the number of whistleblower-discrimination complaints processed by OSHA has jumped from 1,947 cases completed in 2011 to 2,764 cases in 2012, "there has been no commensurate improvement in the quality of the cases filed," according to Humber.

"The number of merit determinations actually decreased from 48 in 2011 to 45 in 2012, and the number of dismissed cases rose from 1,108 in 2011 to 1,660 in 2012," Humber says in his blog.

"If anything, online filing promises to increase the burden on investigators already suffering under excessive caseloads."

It seems that these attorneys aren't huge fans of OSHA's new filing procedures for whistleblower-retaliation claims. But if you're a worker who has been downsized, demoted or disciplined for reporting a safety violation, it's probably a welcome change.

Looking at the powerful cover of this month's magazine, it's hard not to support any measures that make it easier for workers to report safety and health concerns without fear of retribution.

The title of my column asks if an online whistleblower form will lead to a deluge of claims, just as the aforementioned labor attorneys suggest. Maybe it will, maybe it won't. But if it does open up the floodgates for whistleblower claims, is that a bad thing?

In my opinion, it's only bad from the standpoint that a flood of complaints would indicate that there still are far too many workplaces harboring environmental, health and safety problems. 

When it comes to giving a voice to all employees regarding safety and health, though, it's undeniably a good thing.

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