Federal investigators are taking turns pummeling the Occupational Safety and Health Administration over its lackluster protection of whistleblowers.
Two weeks after a highly critical report by the Government Accountability Office, the Labor Department’s inspector general has weighed in — saying OSHA fails to properly investigate complaints of reprisals against employees who report safety hazards or other violations.
Under federal law, it’s illegal to harass or fire a worker for blowing the whistle. OSHA has the job of investigating complaints of retaliation by employers. But according to the inspector general’s report, in about 80 percent of cases, OSHA personnel fail to take one or more steps that are essential for an effective investigation.
As a result, the report found, OSHA “cannot provide assurance that complainants were protected as intended under the various whistleblower protection statutes.”
Whistleblower complaints are rarely successful, the report noted. Of 1,602 complaints resolved in a recent 12-month period, the report said, 77 percent were dismissed or withdrawn; 21 percent were settled with employers for money or reinstatement; and 2 percent ended in a decision in the whistleblower’s favor. The report does not say that cases were wrongly dismissed, but that OSHA isn’t careful to assure complainants get a fair shake.
For example, in 38 percent of cases reviewed by the inspector general, OSHA investigators failed to give the complainant a fair chance to refute the employer’s defense. In 44 percent of cases, investigators failed to obtain a list from the complainant of suggested witnesses. Thirty-seven percent of the time investigators did not interview, or try to interview, all pertinent witnesses.
In a written response, David Michaels, the Labor Department’s assistant secretary for Occupational Safety and Health, said OSHA agrees with many of the report’s recommendations and is conducting “a top-to-bottom review” as part of “our commitment to continuously improve this program.”
The GAO last month attacked OSHA’s performance on different grounds. Among the findings: Nearly 40 percent of investigators have not taken or registered for a required training course on the statutes they are supposed to enforce.
FairWarning revealed other shortcomings in a lengthy article in June, reporting that the thin corps of investigators is overwhelmed by the volume of retaliation complaints. Bulging caseloads, in turn, have created long delays in resolving cases — and a potential bias against whistleblowers because it is faster and easier to dismiss complaints than to substantiate them, FairWarning found.
Chronic weaknesses have prompted advocacy groups such as Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility to urge that whistleblower protection be moved from OSHA to another branch of the Labor Department.
The problems are long-running. A government memo obtained by FairWarning complained of “a serious lack of commitment” to the whistleblower program. Its date: May 10, 1976.