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Weak Whistleblower Protections Preclude OSHA Reform
OSHA Cannot Protect Workers If It Retaliates Against its Own Truth-Tellers
WASHINGTON - March 4 - The Occupational Safety & Health Administration does not effectively protect workers who report health and safety hazards, according to testimony delivered today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This problem is compounded by a culture of reprisal within OSHA against its own specialists who voice concerns about agency deficiencies.
This testimony was submitted today in a daylong stakeholder hearing (entitled "OSHA Listens") in which the new agency leadership is soliciting suggestions for how to improve its performance. Besides abating health and safety hazards, OSHA is supposed to protect private-sector workers who report those hazards or refuse to follow dangerous directives. Yet internal and external reviews rate the OSHA whistleblower program as vastly overmatched, under-resourced and hampered by internal barriers.
The PEER testimony focused on curing the notorious weakness of the OSHA whistleblower program, arguing that the current program prevents the agency from improving health and safety conditions because employees are justifiably afraid to reveal hazards.
Significantly, OSHA itself has a track record of retaliating against its experts who criticize agency performance. In one highly publicized case, OSHA refused to tell its own inspectors that they had been exposed to harmful chemicals and acted to silence the senior official who blew the whistle. In another case going to trial next week, Robert Whitmore, OSHA's top expert and chief critic on monitoring workplace injuries, is fighting his dismissal in July 2009 for "disruptive, intimidating and inappropriate behavior" after spending the previous two years at home on paid administrative leave.
"OSHA cannot credibly protect whistleblowers in the workplace while persecuting them inside its own hallways," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, calling OSHA one of the most repressive workplaces in federal service and pointing to the agency's dismal ratings in the 2009 Best Places to Work survey. "OSHA cannot be reformed until its starts listening to its internal critics."
PEER is proposing a series of steps to increase transparency, tolerance and professional respect inside the agency, including establishing safe channels for employee complaints and reining in abusive managers. With respect to its whistleblower protection for private sector workers, PEER urges OSHA to correct a myriad of internal blockages and consider creating an entirely new branch for whistleblower complaint investigations, perhaps placing it completely outside the Labor Department, which houses OSHA. More fundamentally, OSHA needs to ask Congress for legislation to strengthen what is one of the weakest whistleblower laws on the books.
"OSHA's whistleblower law is unchanged from when it was enacted 40 years ago," said PEER Policy Director Erica Rosenberg, noting that several state OSHA whistleblower laws are stronger than the 1970 federal law. "Congress needs to modernize the law so that whistleblowers can pursue their own claims in court and not be dependent upon a backlogged and dysfunctional Labor Department for relief."