GAO Report Underlines Need for Fundamental OSHA Reform

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

GAO Report Underlines Need for Fundamental OSHA Reform

Systemic Change Requires Stronger Whistleblower Protections and Transparency

WASHINGTON - This week's Government Accountability Office report on systematic
underreporting of worker injuries and illnesses highlights the need for
deeper reforms that go beyond the report's recommendations for better
audits, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility
(PEER).  The GAO report documented the effects of nearly 20 years of
non-enforcement of recordkeeping regulations by the Occupational Safety
& Health Administration that cannot be quickly or easily reversed.

GAO
found that widespread underreporting by workers of on-the-job injuries
was linked to patterns of pressure by employers against both workers
and health care professionals.  GAO recommended that OSHA "inspectors
interview workers during the records audits to obtain information on
injuries and illnesses…." OSHA has pledged to follow this
recommendation.

Unfortunately, OSHA has failed to
protect the workers that it interviews from retaliation.  As a
consequence, workers who contradict their employers' official reports
can be targeted for removal or other reprisal.  The only recourse for
these workers would be to file complaints with OSHA, which has a
notoriously poor record of protecting whistleblowers.

"Without
deeper reforms, this GAO recommendation just sets up more workers to
lose their jobs," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that
earlier this year GAO issued another report faulting OSHA's
administration of whistleblower protection laws.  "Any workers whom
OSHA inspectors interview will have a target on their backs and no way
to wash it off."  Significantly, congressional Democrats are pushing
legislation to strengthen OSHA whistleblower protections.

Many
of the issues in the GAO report are not new - they were the subject of
congressional testimony and other disclosures by OSHA's own top
recordkeeping expert, Robert Whitmore.  Since 2007, however, Whitmore
was kept on paid administrative leave before he was finally fired in
late July 2009 for allegedly being too gruff around his colleagues.  He
had repeatedly decried the notorious inaccuracy of, and lack of
enforcement against, bogus employer illness and injury reports.

"If
OSHA's own professional staff is not safe from whistleblower
retaliation, what hope do ordinary workers have?" asked Ruch, whose
organization is seeking to have Whitmore reinstated to OSHA in a
hearing next month.  "Many of the same OSHA executives who presided
over the recordkeeping debacle remain in place while the only one that
spoke out was pushed out." 

One major OSHA reform that
Whitmore has been urging is to place the employer injury and illness
reports online so that workers, unions, doctors and others could
examine them and challenge their accuracy.  If OSHA does not
voluntarily begin posting the injury and illness rates by firm this
year, PEER will obtain them under the Freedom of Information Act and
post them on a separate website.

The ultimate outcome of
these reforms and the professional future of Robert Whitmore may end up
in the lap of Dr. David Michaels, whose nomination to serve as OSHA
administrator is scheduled for vote today in the Senate Committee on
Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions.

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Look at the fate of Bob Whitmore and read his 2008 congressional testimony

Read the new GAO report on OSHA recordkeeping failures

View the Labor Department reaction to the GAO report

See the 2009 GAO report faulting OSHA whistleblower protection implementation

Find out about pending OSHA reform legislation

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Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.

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