The Occupational Safety and Health Administration enforces twenty-two different whistleblower or anti-retaliation laws. ?Although the anti-retaliation provisions serve to protect employees who report safety violations, or participate in a proceeding related to a safety or fraud complaint, the piecemeal nature in which the statutes were enacted creates a considerable amount of frustration as employees, practitioners, and federal courts struggle with their application.
In determining whether to initially bring a claim, practitioners should look to the nature of the protected ?activity, ?the? specific? statutory language, and applicable case law. ?Most of the OSHA? statutes? protect ?fraud? or safety reports, and testimony in a proceeding meant to carry out the? purpose? of? the? statute, ?but ?some? statutes define these events more or less broadly.?? For example, some protect ?providing information,? but specify where that information must be provided, while others contain a sort of ?catch- all??? phrase?? protecting? ?conduct? ?where?? the employee ?assisted or participated or is about to assist or participate in any manner in such a proceeding or in any other manner . . . .? ?Compare?15 U.S.C. ? 2651 (protects providing information ?to any other person, including a State or the Federal Government?) with 42 U.S.C. ? 9610 (only expressly? protecting ?information ?provided ?to ?a State ?or ?the ?Federal ?Government); ?42 ?U.S.C. ?? 5851 (quoted), see also 42 U.S.C. ? 300j-9(i), 12 U.S.C. ?5567 (containing broader language).?? At least one statute protects ?perceived? whistleblowers.? 49 U.S.C. ? 31105.
Practitioners may also need to consider the nature of? the? employment ?relationship.?? ?Most ?statutes refer to an ?employer? discriminating or retaliating against ?an ??employee,?? though ?some ?refer generally to ?any person.?? ?In recognizing the complexities of many modern day employment arrangements, some whistleblower protection statutes? were expanded ?to? include ?employees ?of government? contractors ?and? subcontractors,? not just employees of the federal government. ?See 42 U.S.C. ? 5851, 49 U.S.C. ? 42121, 18 U.S.C. ? 1514A.
The claims process starts with a complaint of retaliation ?or ?discrimination ?made ?by? the employee, or the employee?s representative, to the Secretary of Labor.? ?However, the deadline for making a complaint to the Secretary varies significantly? by? statute ?and ?often ?provides ?very little time for the employee to bring charges. ?For example, a Clean Air Act anti-retaliation complaint must be brought within 30 days of when the employee believes he or she is discharged or otherwise? ?retaliated? ?against.????? ?42? ?U.S.C.? ?? 7622(b)(1). ?The same is true for the Solid Waste Disposal? Act,? 42? U.S.C.? ?? 6971,? and? the Toxic Substances Control Act, 15 U.S.C. ? 2622. Employees covered by the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act have 90 days to bring a claim, ?15 ?U.S.C. ?? ?2651, ?while? several ?other statutes? permit? claims? to be brought? within? 180 days of the alleged retaliation.? ?See 49 U.S.C. ? 20109, 42 U.S.C. ? 5851, 18 U.S.C. ? 1514A, 15 U.S.C. ? 2087.
Eleven of the twenty-two whistleblower statutes administered ?by ?OSHA ?contain ??kick ?out? ?or ?opt-out? provisions allowing the complainant to bring ?her ?claim ?in ?federal ?court ?for ?de ?novo review if the Secretary of Labor fails to issue a final decision within a specified amount of time. The time at which a complainant can ?opt-out? of ?the ?administrative ?process ?also ?varies ?by statute, ranging from 180 to 210 days to 1 year. Another ?major ?difference ?among ?the ?OSHA statutes??? ?are??? ?the??? ?remedies??? ?provided??? ?to whistleblowers, ?whether ?they? be ?reinstatement, back pay, front pay, or emotional harm damages. While??? ?some??? ?variation??? ?in??? ?the??? ?OSHA whistleblower protection statutes is expected and necessary ?due ?to ?the ?wide ?range ?of ?subject matters covered, greater uniformity is necessary to avoid confusion, to decrease litigation over the nuances ?of ?a ?particular ?statute, ?and ?to ?offer stronger protections to all whistleblowers.