Whistleblower - Common Questions (FAQ)
Q: What types of whistleblower complaints does Iowa OSHA investigate?
A: Iowa OSHA investigates whistleblower complaints that are related to occupational safety and/or health.
Q: What activities are protected under the whistleblower law enforced by Iowa OSHA?
A: Employees have the right to engage in “protected activity.” Generally, protected activities include reporting conduct that the employee reasonably believes violates a relevant law, filing a complaint about a violation, and testifying, assisting, or participating in a proceeding related to a violation. In general, these protected activities include internal reporting of concerns to the employer, as well as reporting issues to relevant federal, state, or local regulatory agencies or law enforcement. In some instances, Iowa OSHA’s whistleblower law may provide even broader protection. For example, the Act bans retaliation against employees for reporting injuries, illnesses, or unsafe conditions to their employers,
participating in Iowa OSHA inspections, and, under certain conditions, refusing to work when there is reasonable fear of death or serious injury.
Q: Is an employee protected from retaliation for reporting conduct that the employee mistakenly believes is unlawful?
A: Yes. As long as the employee had a reasonable, good faith belief that a violation occurred or could occur, the reporting is generally considered protected activity.
Q: What is retaliation?
A: Retaliation is taking an adverse action against an employee for engaging in protected activity. Adverse actions can include:
• Firing or laying off
• Denying overtime or promotion
• Reducing pay or hours
• Giving an employee a reassignment that affects his or her prospects for promotion
• Denying benefits
• Failing to hire or rehire
• Blacklisting (intentionally interfering with an employee’s ability to obtain future employment)
• Making threats
Q: What elements must Iowa OSHA find to determine that retaliation in violation of the whistleblower law took place?
A: To find that unlawful retaliation took place, Iowa OSHA must determine that:
• The employee engaged in protected activity under the Act; and
• The employer knew about or suspected the protected activity; and
• The employer took an adverse action against the employee; and
• The protected activity is linked to the adverse action.
Q: Do employees have any recourse under federal laws not enforced by Iowa OSHA for retaliation due to occupational safety or health activity?
A: Possibly. Depending on the facts of the case, laws enforced by other federal agencies may be applicable. For example, if the safety or health activity was undertaken with or on behalf of co-workers, including, but not limited to, the filing of a grievance under a collective bargaining agreement (“concerted activity”), the complainant may file a charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) within six months of the adverse action.
Q: Who investigates whistleblower complaints in Iowa?
A: Whistleblower complaints are investigated by an Iowa OSHA whistleblower investigator.
Q: Does Iowa OSHA represent employees during the investigation?
A: No. The Iowa OSHA Whistleblower Investigator is a neutral fact-finder who does not represent or advocate on behalf of either party. The Investigator’s job is to impartially gather and analyze all relevant evidence to determine whether unlawful whistleblower retaliation has occurred.
Q: How does Iowa OSHA conduct its whistleblower investigations?
A: Procedures for conducting whistleblower investigations are found in Iowa OSHA’s Whistleblower Investigations Manual. Additional information on what to expect during an Iowa OSHA whistleblower investigation can be found here.
Q: How long does Iowa OSHA take to investigate a case?
A: The timeframe for completion of investigations is 90 days. However, failure to meet these timeframes does not bar Iowa OSHA from issuing findings at a later time as these timeframes are directory in nature. Iowa OSHA’s whistleblower investigations may take a significant amount of time to complete as there are many whistleblower cases with varying levels of complexity.
Interactions between Iowa OSHA’s Safety and Whistleblower Division
Q: What is the difference between filing a safety and health complaint with Iowa OSHA and filing a whistleblower complaint with Iowa OSHA?
A: A safety and health complaint relates to unsafe or unhealthful working conditions. A safety and health complaint filed with Iowa OSHA may prompt an inspection of a workplace. If a safety and health complaint is filed with Iowa OSHA that includes an allegation of retaliation, that portion of the complaint will be referred to the Whistleblower Protection Program for possible investigation. A whistleblower complaint relates to alleged action taken against an employee in retaliation for engaging in activity protected by the whistleblower law that Iowa OSHA enforces. For example, if an employer retaliates against an employee for making a safety and health complaint, such retaliation violates the Act. A whistleblower complaint may prompt an investigation into whether an employer retaliated against an employee for engaging in protected activity under these whistleblower law. If a whistleblower complaint is filed with Iowa OSHA that includes allegations of safety and health hazards, that portion of the complaint will be referred to the Safety and Health Enforcement Program for possible inspection.
Q: In addition to investigating retaliation, will Iowa OSHA take action to address the employee’s health, safety, or regulatory concerns in a whistleblower case?
A: If an employee files a whistleblower complaint, Iowa OSHA will refer any underlying safety and health complaint to Iowa OSHA’s Safety and Health Enforcement Program for review of any occupational safety or health issues raised in the complaint.
Q: Can whistleblowers file anonymous complaints with Iowa OSHA?
A: Unlike OSHA’s safety and health complaints, whistleblower complaints cannot be filed anonymously.
Q: How can employees file whistleblower complaints with Iowa OSHA?
A: Employees may file whistleblower complaints online, through the mail/email, via fax, by telephone, or in person at a 150 Des Moines Street, Des Moines, Iowa 50309. Whistleblower complaints do not need to be in a specific format.
Q: How long do employees have to file a whistleblower complaint?
A: The timeframe for filing complaint is up to 30 calendar days once the complainant learns of the adverse action.
Q: Can employees amend their complaints after filing if they believe they have suffered an additional adverse action?
A: Yes. After filing a whistleblower complaint with Iowa OSHA, a complainant may amend the complaint to add additional allegations and/or additional respondents. It is Iowa OSHA’s policy to permit the liberal amendment of complaints, provided that the original complaint was timely, and the investigation has not yet concluded.
Merit and Non-Merit Findings
Q: If Iowa OSHA finds that a case has merit, what happens next?
A: Cases investigated under Section 88.9(3) of the Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Act may be litigated on behalf of the Labor Commissioner by an Iowa Division of Labor attorney in district court. If the court finds a violation, it may award reinstatement, back pay, compensatory damages, punitive damages, and other appropriate relief.
Q: If Iowa OSHA does not find that a case has merit, what happens next?
A: Employees whose cases are investigated and dismissed as non-merit under Section 88.9(3) of the Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Act have the right to appeal the decision. They must request such in writing within 15 calendar days of receiving the findings notifying them of the decision to dismiss.
Q: How can I file an Open Records request for a whistleblower case file?
A: Information on how to file an Open Records request with Iowa OSHA can be found online.