If I work in the air or ground transportation industry, can I be fired for reporting unsafe conditions?
The answer is “no,” if you follow the proper reporting requirements.
Federal law protects employees in the air carrier industry and the surface transportation industry who report safety violations or who refuse to work in unsafe conditions. As with all “whistleblower” laws, you must follow the procedures set out in the statutes in order to be protected from retaliation for blowing the whistle on unsafe conditions.
You must act quickly to protect your rights. In both the air carrier industry—covered by the statute known as “Air21” and the surface transportation industry—covered by the Surface Transportation Assistance Act (“STAA”), you must file a complaint within 180 days of the time of the retaliation. The complaint is usually filed with the Department of Labor through OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration).
Examples of persons protected by these laws are airline pilots and crew members, medical helicopter pilots and their crews, mechanics and dispatchers, truck drivers, and a broad range of employees who work in these industries and might be affected by safety issues or who have knowledge of them.
Why Whistleblower Laws Are Important for the Transportation Industry
These laws are important because of the natural tension between the employer who wants the flight or ground transport to continue for economic reasons, and the employee who sees an unsafe condition and reports it, causing a flight or a ground delivery to be delayed or canceled. These laws give employees a lot of power to report unsafe conditions, and to refuse to operate unsafe aircraft or vehicles, if the belief is in “good faith.” That means you must have an honest belief that a situation is unsafe or potentially unsafe. You do not have to be right in the end—the condition may end up being safe after investigation. But you cannot be retaliated against for being wrong about it. The law wants air and ground transportation employees to err on the side of caution, and so it gives them powerful protection for blowing the whistle on suspected unsafe conditions.
If you have been terminated or disciplined for reporting a safety violation, or for refusing to work in an unsafe situation, your employer will undoubtedly put forward other reasons for the discipline that make sense on the surface. I have seen cases where the employer claimed the whistleblower was unnecessarily upsetting and frightening other employees; or that the employee took too long to decide to take an aircraft out of service; or that the whistleblower was guilty of safety violations himself. But these laws are quite strong—if you can trace the discipline you received back to a “protected activity”—reporting a safety concern, threatening to report a safety concern, refusing to operate an unsafe vehicle, etc.—you should be protected against retaliation.
What to Remember
Of course, this “protection” doesn’t mean your employer will not terminate you, or discipline you in other ways, for engaging in these protected activities. But if you are terminated, the law gives you the right to recover your lost income and benefits, to get your job back, and to have your attorney fees paid by the employer if you win. Since any sophisticated employer is aware of these whistleblower protections, they are usually careful not to blatantly violate the law by firing an employee for complaining about safety issues, or for refusing to work in a clearly unsafe condition. But in situations that are not clear-cut, where opinions might differ on how dangerous it really is, employers can become aggravated with an employee who consistently takes the most conservative approach, grounding aircraft and filing reports when other pilots might go ahead and fly. Employers in that situation have to be very careful in dealing with their safety-conscious employees. Unless the safety concern is so irrational that the court decides the employee could not really have believed it, the employee will be protected.
Reporting Unsafe Work Conditions in Cincinnati, Ohio
If you are confronted with safety violations or concerns that should be reported, don’t hesitate to do so. You should follow whatever procedures are set out in your employee manual or other documents that specify how and to whom to make reports of safety or other concerns. Normally this involves reporting to your direct supervisor, or to the safety manager, or another high management employee in a position to do something about it. However, if your direct supervisor brushes off your concerns or does not adequately deal with them, you should report to higher management, following the company’s guidelines as much as possible, and to any governmental agency—for example, OSHA, or the FAA—that you believe should know.
Most safety concerns arise on the spot and decisions must be made quickly. But if you have faced the same situation repeatedly, or if you foresee having problems with an employer who may retaliate against you for making a whistleblower complaint, you should consult with a lawyer as soon as possible. These statutes can be complicated, and making your claim for retaliation is best done with the help of an attorney from the beginning.