The process of filing whistleblower complaints just became a lot easier. On December 5, 2013, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) launched a new system that will allow workers to file whistleblower retaliation complaints online.
Under the previous system, whistleblowers could only make complaints to OSHA by filing a written complaint, or by calling the agency’s hotline or regional office. The online system will provide a more convenient avenue for whistleblowers to lodge their complaints and to meet the filing deadlines. It will allow whistleblowers to report violations in a simple form, where they can describe the allegedly retaliatory act by clicking a box from a menu of choices.
According to a U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) press release, complaints filed using the new online system will be automatically routed to the appropriate regional office for investigation. The online form will be identical to the paper version and will request the same information from whistleblowers to initiate an OSHA investigation.
OSHA has investigatory authority for the whistleblower provisions of 22 separate statutes, which cover employees who report violations of various securities, trucking, air and rail, nuclear power, pipeline, and environmental laws. Its investigatory authority includes violations of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the Surface Transportation Assistance Act, and the Clean Air Act. After OSHA completes its investigation, it issues findings, which may then be reviewed by the DOL’s Office of Administrative Law Judges, Administrative Review Board, and the federal Courts of Appeals.
The online filing system is consistent with a trend within the DOL to reduce the formality required to bring administrative whistleblower complaints. One concern for employers is whether the informal complaint process provides them with sufficient information to investigate the claim. Practitioners will also be interested in observing if OSHA’s online filing system increases the amount of whistleblower complaints that OSHA receives. As discussed in a previous Ethics/Whistleblower blog post, the number of whistleblower complaints processed by OSHA rose dramatically from 2011 to 2012, although the number of merit determinations actually decreased over the same time period.
Ogletree Deakins regularly provides nationwide counseling for clients who face whistleblower complaints through its Ethics Compliance, Investigations, and Whistleblower Response Practice Group.