What Are Whistleblower Laws?

By Chris Kolmar
Oct. 27, 2022

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It’s an unfortunate fact that many companies engage in illegal or unethical activities.

You can’t rule out the possibility that you may witness or be asked to participate in such activities at some point during your career.

To prepare for such situations, it’s critical to understand what laws exist to protect whistleblowers who choose to do the right thing and speak out against their employer.

In this article, we’ll discuss your rights as a whistleblower and how the investigation process works. You’ll also learn to identify whistleblower retaliation in the workplace and file a claim.

Key Takeaways:

  • Whistleblower laws are laws that protect employees who expose workplace safety and health violations committed by their employer

  • Before filing a complaint, make sure you do your research and consult a lawyer to determine if your employer did something illegal.

  • It’s important to understand that there is usually a time limit to file a complaint, and you cannot do it anonymously.

What Are Whistleblower laws?

What Are Whistleblower Laws?

Whistleblower laws are laws that protect employees who expose workplace safety and health violations committed by their employer.

Most individuals depend on their jobs to maintain their livelihoods, making it difficult to speak out against companies and risk facing retaliatory action.

To remedy this problem, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) enforces a large list of laws restricting and punishing any company who takes adverse action against you for exposing any wrongful activity.

How to File a Whistleblower Complaint

  1. Determine if your employer illegally retaliated against you for engaging in protected activity. The act of exposing workplace violations is considered a protected activity if those violations fall under any of the statutes listed in OSHA’s Directorate of Whistleblower Protection Programs (DWPP).

    A few significant examples of workplace violations covered under DWPP include those concerning:

    • Asbestos

    • Consumer products

    • Motor vehicle safety

    • Public transportation

    • Food safety

    • Financial fraud

  2. Consult a lawyer. Before submitting a whistleblower claim, you should either consult a legal expert or thoroughly research the statutes related to the particular workplace violation you reported.

    There are surprisingly no laws that provide legal protection to whistleblowers of many serious health violations.

    Even in the case of food safety laws, there are only certain specific violations that you can report and be protected against employer retaliation.

  3. Do your research. In addition to the DWPP, you should research your states’ whistleblower laws. New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act, for example, provides many rights to whistleblowers that many other states’ laws don’t.

  4. Understand retaliation tactics. Retaliation against an employee includes obvious direct actions such as:

    • Demotion

    • Job termination

    • Salary reduction

    • Job reassignment

    • Unfavorable shift changes

    In some cases, it can be difficult to prove if the action was a genuine, non-malicious decision by a manager or a subtle way to get back at the employee.

    For example, a supervisor may task time-inflexible duties to a parent with young children. It would be up to the employee to provide convincing evidence of retaliatory intent to OSHA.

  5. Report it to OSHA. Once you’ve determined that you have a valid whistleblower complaint, you can submit it to OSHA through any of the following filing options:

    • Online. The Online Whistleblower Complaint Form provides instructions and walks you through the entire process of filing a complaint with OSHA.

      The online method is convenient if you live in a state with an OSHA-approved state plan, as it’ll automatically submit your complaint directly to your state plan for you.

    • Mail/Email/Fax. The first step is to complete and print a copy of the same Online Whistleblower Complaint Form as you would go through the online filing option.

      Next, use OSHA’s office mapping tool to locate your local OSHA regional or area office.

      To ensure that OSHA can contact you to follow up with your complaint, make sure that your letter or email includes your:

      • Full Name

      • Email address

      • Telephone/Fax number

    • Telephone. Use the same OSHA office mapping tool to identify your local OSHA regional or area office.

      Give them a call, and OSHA staff will walk you through the entire process and answer any questions you may have.

    • In-person. Visit your local OSHA regional or area office to submit your verbal or written complaint to OSHA staff.

  6. Although not necessary, there are many ways you can help the OSHA investigator who looks at your complaint.

    If possible, include the following in your complaint:

    • Your current job description.

    • Copies of your last five pay stubs.

    • Copies of hiring/termination letters.

    • A copy of the employee handbook.

    • The names and contact information of company officials who made the violations you’re filing a complaint about.

    • Copies of any disciplinary actions you received while you were employed.

  7. After your report. Once you’ve filed a workplace violation complaint with OSHA, the agency will interview you, and relevant company officials will determine the need for an investigation.

    If they deem an investigation to be necessary, the agency will collect evidence and witness testimonials to support your claim.

    OSHA will then take appropriate action depending on their verdict.

What to Consider Before Filing a Whistleblower Complaint

Before you file a whistleblower complaint against your employer, make sure you understand and consider the following:

  1. Time limit. You only have a certain number of days after your employer first retaliates against you to file a whistleblower complaint with OSHA.

    Your time limit depends on the nature of the original workplace violation. Many of these figures are conveniently listed in OSHA’s Directorate of Whistleblower Protection Programs (DWPP).

    For example, you must file whistleblower complaints relating to health and safety violations concerning asbestos within 90 days of workplace retaliation first occurring.

    There may be exceptions that override the time limits given in the DWPP:

    • Union contracts. Some union contracts require you to file grievances within as little as three days after your employer engages in an adverse action.

    • Public sector jobs. State and local employees may be required to file grievances within ten days.

      Federal employees are given a certain number of days to file their complaint that depends on the agency they work for.

  2. No anonymity. Take note that whistleblower complaints cannot be filed anonymously.

    OSHA will not reveal your identity when first determining the need for an investigation.

    However, once the agency deems an investigation is necessary, they will notify your employer so that they have an opportunity to respond.

    For this reason, refrain from including the names or contact information of any witnesses.

    You’ll have plenty of opportunities to call on witnesses as the investigation proceeds.

  3. Whistleblower complaints are not for safety violations. A whistleblower complaint is used to report cases of retaliation, not initial cases of workplace safety violations.

    To report an employer who violates health and safety codes, you would instead file a Notice of Alleged Safety or Health Hazards.

What You Can Expect During a Whistleblower Investigation

During a whistleblower investigation, OSHA will examine if the evidence presented reveals all of the following four statements:

  • The employee engaged in protected activity.

  • The employer knew about or suspected the protected activity.

  • The employer took adverse action.

  • The protected activity motivated or contributed to the adverse action.

OSHA will make their determination based on two forms of evidence:

  1. Direct evidence. Direct evidence is the physical or testimonial evidence that plainly shows that the employer was angry about the employee’s protected activity.

    For example, suppose that a supervisor sends an email to warn employees against reporting workplace violations.

    This is direct written evidence proving that the employer was very aware that any employee reporting the violations would be engaging in protected activity.

    Another example would include a witness overhearing the supervisor angrily insulting an employee for reporting a workplace violation.

  2. Inference. OSHA may not require direct evidence if causation is obvious.

    For example, suppose that a supervisor asks their team who reported a safety violation to OSHA.

    Amy raises her hand and is promptly fired on the spot.

    Although the employer never directly stated Amy’s cause for termination, the timing makes it plainly obvious that it was due to her whistleblowing.

Make sure to preserve any potential evidence relating to the circumstances of your allegation, including:

  • Emails

  • Letters

  • Phone logs

  • Voicemails

  • Contracts

  • Text messages

OSHA will ask your employer to provide a written defense against your complaint. Both parties are expected to rebut each others’ position and actively participate in the investigation.

Throughout this entire process, you and your employer are free to agree to a settlement mutually.

If OSHA decides in your favor and a settlement has not been reached, they will generally issue an order to your employer to compensate you for damages.

Compensation may take the form of:

  • Restored benefits

  • Reinstatement of terminated employees

  • Pay for all days lost due to termination

  • Other possible remedies to make the employee whole

Depending on the nature of the original workplace violation, OSHA will either require employers to immediately compensate the employee or give them a certain amount of time to contest the verdict.

Final Thoughts

Note that all information we’ve provided thus far only covers OSHA’s general process for investigating whistleblower complaints.

Investigation procedures vary widely depending on the statute that employers originally violated.

For example, the process for receiving compensation from your employer is unique under the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act and the International Safe Container Act.

Even after OSHA decides a whistleblower complaint favors the complainant, the Secretary of Labor must file suit in federal district court to obtain compensation.

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Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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