Before protective laws were enacted through Congress, workers couldn’t feel confident in reporting malfeasance throughout the workplace due to backlash and ostracization by superiors. Those employees who were brave enough to speak up concerning their poor conditions to a local or federal entity often faced discrimination, exclusion, suspension or even termination without legal ramifications for employers. This led employees to feel they had no stake in how their occupation or environment governed their work experience, lowering the overall safety and efficacy of the business and community. Today, the law provides protection for employees who blow the whistle on unsafe work environments and there are a few good reasons why the law enforces these protections.
1. A whistleblower plays an important role in maintaining a safe work environment
Merriam-Webster defines whistle-blower as one who reveals something covert or who informs against another. A lawyering entity would define it as an employee who brings wrongdoing by an employer or other employees to the attention of a government or law enforcement agency and who is commonly vested by statute with rights and remedies for retaliation. A whistleblower details the illicit activities of an agency or proprietor to a more balanced authoritative power. Like modern-day superheroes, whistleblowers even the scale, lighting a path of secrets and evil unheard while keeping their coworkers and patrons secure. Without laws in place to protect these agents of change, we would all remain vulnerable to unsolicited assaults of workplace deviance.
2. History proves we need whistleblowers in the workplace
On December 29th, 1970 President Richard Nixon established the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) agency through the U.S. Department of Labor. The goal of this agency was to establish regulations and guidelines to maintain employee and community safety at work and in any public space. Since its’ establishment work-related injury and death has declined 65% nationally and the financial effect of workplace illnesses and injuries to American employers has tremendously decreased. This, in turn, produces a reduced loss of wages and cost of caring for the injured effectively alleviating monetary and psychological strain on working families and community. The laws put in place by OSHA help employees to hold their employers accountable legally for any divergence or lapse in workplace safety. It also provides them and their proprietor with a resource to their established rights, training, outreach, education, and health information such as preventable diseases, illness or injury.
3. Employees have the best insight when it comes to an unsafe work environment
Laws are enacted in order to be followed, but what happens when employers don’t follow these laws? Employees are individuals who have firsthand experience in their own work environment, therefore they may be the most knowledgeable as to when an unsafe work environment needs to be reported. With that in mind, the laws reflect the importance of a whistleblowers intel.
OSHA encompasses twenty-two federal laws protecting workers from discrimination, retaliation, and threat by employers or other employees under the Whistleblower Protection Program. The Whistleblower Protection Program protects workers over constantly transitioning fields like the transportation industry and consumer and investor protection laws. It also mandates specific occupational, environmental, and nuclear safety protection laws. One of these laws is the Clean Air Act (CAA) which prohibits employer’s retaliation against employees who report violations regarding air emissions from area, stationary, and mobile sources. This law allows 30 days for the employee to file a complaint, orally or in writing, in any language directly to OSHA. By doing this OSHA maximizes the employee’s, and ultimately the community’s, safety by protecting the worker’s position from retaliation when in unsafe conditions. With the fatal penance of air pollution currently looming over China, New Delhi and even the United States, the CAA is more vital than ever.
After the hurricanes that swept the nation affecting Houston and Puerto Rico this fall, air quality has become an increasingly important issue. In a November 13th public health announcement by National Public Radio, documentation of Galena Park, Texas, a small city just east of Houston, showed a large discrepancy in air quality measures. It dictated a community almost completely surrounded by oil refineries and pipeline terminals regularly experiencing heavy gas saturation in their air. According to a 2017 analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund, Hurricane Harvey damaged facilities in Texas resulting in an additional 5.98 million pounds of pollutants released into the air. Contrary to this data the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a statement eight days after Harvey saying the air was safe and the area secure. Residents in areas like Galena Park then confronted serious gas inhalation which in large quantities can cause organ failure and considerably shorter life expectancy. The community continued to work, play, and resumed normal activity in the weeks and months after the storm. With the Clean Air Act, an employee in this area working in a factory or oil refinery can file any retaliation they encountered after reporting the detrimental conditions they face without fear of losing their position. In times of disaster, it’s important to have these laws in place so employees know in the midst of unforeseeable destruction, they’re still able to exercise their right to a safe workplace.
4. Whistleblowers can improve other employee’s health
Within the occupational, environmental, and nuclear safety laws the Safe Drinking Water Act prohibits reprisal against any employee who reports alleged violations pertaining to any waters actually or potentially delegated for consumption. Meaning employees have the right to safe drinking water in their workplace and if those conditions are not met and they face retaliation upon demand, they may file a claim within 30 days of the incident. Many nations lack accesses to clean water at work and home through their dismantled infrastructure and never receive a form of governmental aid for that necessity. This creates more worker injury, illness and lack of productivity essentially disabling the employee, employer, and populace. Although most of the United States has access to safe drinking water, communities and families in Flint, Michigan still struggle with this basic need. The Flint, Michigan water crisis has expounded for approximately three years and caused health, financial and social fallouts to the entire region. Due to improperly treated water passing through corrosive pipelines, lead, fecal coliform bacteria, and other contaminants seeped into the Flint water supply. During this time tap water is not safe for drinking or consumption and residents still rely heavily on all forms of bottled and prepackaged water. Employees who do not have access to this more expensive but necessary alternative in their workplace can request it from their employers while being defended from retaliation through the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Author: Esther Adossi from Southwestern Adventist University