OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program was created to enforce protections for all employees — including those in rail and other transportation trades — who report violations of various workplace safety and health laws.  

IBEW officials joined with fellow transportation trades representatives in June to make an impassioned argument for stronger enforcement of federal whistleblower laws.

Alongside representatives from 31 sister unions and the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department, the IBEW’s Railroad Department gave a united presentation during a recent U.S. Department of Labor meeting about protecting whistleblowers from employer retaliation.

Railroad Department Director William Bohné offered a number of suggestions for ways that the agency could strengthen its protections of IBEW members in particular.

“We’d really like to see OSHA assess bigger punitive damages against companies that repeatedly retaliate against whistleblowers, for example,” Bohné said. “Fines can’t be some affordable price for breaking the law. We need to make employers think before they act.”

The June 12 gathering in Washington, D.C., was organized by the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It brought together a number of organizations that represent the U.S.’s rail and trucking communities.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration was created by an act of Congress in 1970. Nineteen years later, Congress expanded OSHA’s authority, under nearly two dozen federal laws, to safeguard the rights of employees who report violations of a variety of workplace laws and to protect from retaliation workers who report things such as on-the-job injuries and safety concerns.

“Too often,” Bohné said, “managers aren’t aware of — or, more likely, they just don’t care about — what OSHA does and how it’s supposed to protect workers.”

A lot of employers would rather waste their time fighting whistleblower claims instead of just complying with the law in the first place, he said. “So, we’d like to see OSHA have the ability to compel employers to train their managers on how to comply with whistleblower laws.”

Publishing on the web a list of repeat offenders also could help deter bad employer behavior, Bohné said.

The June meeting was the first in a series of OSHA-planned public-input gatherings, which the agency said were geared toward determining how it might better explain whistleblower laws and improve its customer service practices.

“The IBEW has long advocated for strong whistleblower protections that shield transportation workers from employer retaliation when reporting safety violations, accidents or injuries,” Bohné said. “Such protections support workers and promote a safe work environment, but they’re only successful when they’re implemented properly.”

Further, he said, rank-and-file workers need to be aware that they have rights when it comes to reporting bad employer behavior, and OSHA could lend a hand in raising that awareness.

“When you consider the number of whistleblower cases that get dismissed or remanded,” Bohné said, “we start to wonder whether workers have ready access to the tools they need for the timely filing of claims.”

The filing process is already hard enough, he said, but it gets more complicated with the added worry that taking action and reporting violations could put a worker’s job at risk.

“In a perfect world, companies wouldn’t create an environment where whistleblowing was needed in the first place,” Bohné said.

Whistleblower protection laws also cover workers’ participation in safety and health activities as well as the reporting of work-related injuries, illnesses, or fatalities.

Federal law forbids employers from discriminating against workers when they exercise their rights by filing OSHA complaints, talking to inspectors, seeking access to employer exposure and injury records, reporting injuries, and raising safety or health complaints with employers.

In 2007, the Federal Railroad Safety Act was amended to transfer authority for railroad carrier worker whistleblower protections to OSHA and to include new rights, remedies, and procedures.

If you have been retaliated or discriminated against for exercising your rights, you must file a complaint with OSHA within 180 days of the alleged adverse action. Retaliatory actions can include firing, laying off, blacklisting, intimidation, and making threats. Visit whistleblowers.gov to learn more.

If you need assistance getting started, talk to your business manager or shop steward. And for help in filing a claim, contact an IBEW Federal Employees Liability Act (FELA) designated legal counsel. For details, visit ibew.org.