Weak Whistleblower Protections Preclude OSHA Reform

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

Weak Whistleblower Protections Preclude OSHA Reform

OSHA Cannot Protect Workers If It Retaliates Against its Own Truth-Tellers

WASHINGTON - 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."

 

Read the PEER testimony

Examine whistleblower case of OSHA's toughest critic

See how whistleblower protection is central to worker protection

Look at how OSHA hushed up hazardous exposure of its own inspectors

View OSHA's low scores on Best Places to Work survey

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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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