Food company employees — from field workers to grocery store clerks — are on the front lines of food safety efforts but are sometimes reluctant to speak up about problems because they fear retaliation. report-it A new rule, published Monday in the Federal Register, defines whistleblower protections for employees who disclose information about potential food safety problems. The final rule from the federal Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fulfills some of the congressional mandates in the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). The Act switches food safety enforcement efforts away from penalties and toward preventive controls. “Food industry workers must never be silenced by the threat of losing their jobs when their safety or the safety of the public is at stake,” OSHA Director David Michaels said in a news release about the new rule. “This rule underscores the agency’s commitment to protect the rights of workers who report illegal activity in their workplace.” The rule establishes procedures for employees who wish to file retaliation complaints and for the government and employers to follow when investigating and responding to such complaints. The rule also explains the burdens of proof, remedies and statute of limitations. Employees are protected when they “provided or are about to provide to their employer, the federal government, or the attorney general of a state information relating to any violation of, or any act or omission the employee reasonably believes to be a violation of” food safety rules and regulations. Protections also cover employees who testify or plan to testify about food safety violations, as well as employees who assist in investigations or other proceedings. Employees who refuse to participate in activities that would violate food safety rules are also protected from retaliation. Employees must file retaliation complaints within 180 days of the alleged retaliatory activity. “Complaints filed under FSMA need not be in any particular form. They may be either oral or in writing. If the complainant is unable to file the complaint in English, OSHA will accept the complaint in any language,” according to the final rule. “… On the basis of information obtained in the investigation, the assistant secretary (of labor) will issue, within 60 days of the filing of a complaint, written findings regarding whether or not there is reasonable cause to believe that the complaint has merit.” If it is determined that employees are subjected to retaliatory actions, the employees are entitled to a variety of remedies, including reinstatement, back pay and damages for emotional distress and damage to their reputations. (To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)