Facing sharp criticism of its whistleblower protection program, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has announced measures to improve training and avoid long delays in completing investigations.

The program has been ripped by the Labor Department’s inspector general and by the Government Accountability Office which, in a report released last year, cited training lapses among its glaring weaknesses. As FairWarning has reported, other problems include a serious lack of staff, with investigators being overwhelmed by huge caseloads and a steady expansion of new laws to enforce. The program is responsible for protecting whistleblowers under 21 different federal statutes covering everything from workplace and transportation safety to pollution control and accounting fraud.

As part of the measures announced Monday, OSHA will hold a mandatory training conference in September to be attended by all whistleblower investigators as well as by Labor Department lawyers who work on whistleblower cases.

“The ability of workers to speak out and exercise their legal rights without fear of retaliation is crucial,” OSHA chief David Michaels said in a news release. “The new measures will significantly strengthen OSHA’s enforcement of the 21 whistleblower laws that Congress charged OSHA with administering.”

Other changes include having the program report directly to the OSHA chief, rather than to the enforcement division, which handles safety inspections and has been accused of neglecting whistleblower protection. OSHA said it is also issuing a revised investigations manual and will strengthen audits “to ensure that complaints are properly handled on a timely basis.”

The GAO found that nearly 40 percent of whistleblower investigators had not not taken or even registered for a required basic training course on the statutes they are supposed to enforce. “According to one senior official,” the report said, “some regions are unwilling to send investigators to mandatory training, citing a lack of need for such training.”

OSHA recently hired more than 25 new investigators to deal with heavy caseloads. But citing past experience, the GAO warned that without adequate central controls, the new hires could be diverted by regional officials to other tasks.

MATTHEW HELLER

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