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Can OSHA Protect Coronavirus Whistleblowers?

National Law Review – “As the nation debates when millions of employees should return to work despite the risk being infected with COVID-19, the grim reality of worker safety laws must be addressed.   The primary law requiring a safe working environment is the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). As reported by the Washington Post, thousands of OSHA complaints are already pouring into OSHA triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.  However, despite its mandate to protect worker safety, for years the OSHA whistleblower law has been highly criticized as “dysfunctional,” or worse.  The time to ensure that employees can report workplace hazards, or refuse to perform life-threatening work without proper protections, is now.

Enacted in 1970, OSHA was intended to “assure so far as possible every working man and woman in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions and to preserve our human resources.”  To achieve this goal Congress incorporated one of the earliest whistleblower laws into OSHA, better known as §11(c).  Section 11(c) was designed to protect workers who file complaints concerning unsafe working conditions.  It covers everything from an employer’s duty to ensure that a scaffolding is not dangerous to providing protective masks for hospital employees.  It also prohibits retaliation against employees who raise safety concerns at work, and authorized the Secretary of Labor to file lawsuits on their behalf for reinstatement and backpay.  Three years after OSHA was passed the Secretary of Labor approved regulations implementing the law. Among those rules was the right of employees to refuse to perform work, without proper safeguards,  that could cause “serious injury or death.”

OSHA is the principle federal law that employees must use to report dangerous working conditions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.  If their bosses require them to work in unsafe conditions that could threaten their lives, it is the OSHA law that protects their right to say “no.”  In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, forcing employees to work at risk of becoming sick with COVID-19 should be prohibited under law. But OSHA’s legal protections are hollow for the majority of the American workforce…”

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