Consumer Fraud

osha accused of mismanaging whistleblower protection program

The federal whistleblower protection program that is supposed to serve 200 million U.S. workers is languishing under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s authority and should be removed, according to a new Government Accountability Office report.

The GAO report admonished OSHA leadership for its inattention to the whistleblower program and recommended that it be elevated to its own separate office. The GAO’s recommendation jibes with the calls of whistleblower support organizations, such as Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which has petitioned Labor Secretary Hilda Solis to turn the program into its own office within the Department of Labor.

Entitled “Whistleblower Protection: Sustained Management Attention Needed to Address Long-standing Program Weaknesses,” the report accuses OSHA of malpractice and neglect in its handling of the program. Some of the failures GAO cited were:

  • Allowing whistleblower program funds to be diverted to other uses. GAO says that the program is so neglected that OSHA doesn’t even have a separate accounting code to track the program’s expenditures;
  • Lacking action plans and performance measures for the whistleblower program. GAO claims that OSHA’s mission statement and strategic plan don’t even mention whistleblower protection.
  • Failing completely in managing the program’s operation. The report says “OSHA has done little to ensure that investigators have the necessary training and equipment to do their jobs, and that it lacks sufficient internal controls to ensure that the whistleblower program operates as intended.”

“OSHA management of the whistleblower program makes MMS look good,” PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said in a statement, pointing out that OSHA has not yet implemented any of the eight recommendations from a critical 2009 GAO report on the whistleblower program. The MMS (Minerals Management Service) was the federal regulatory agency that came under fire after the BP oil spill for failing to enforce key safety rules and not holding oil companies to minimum government standards.

“The bottom line is that millions of American workers remain vulnerable to retaliation as a result of official malfeasance and indifference.”

Whistleblower advocacy groups have called upon Secretary Solis to move the whistleblower program out of OSHA into a new “national Whistleblower Protection Office with its own budget, programmatic identity, strategic plan, staff, and leadership. The groups charged that “an entrenched culture of harassment within OSHA … renders the agency even more ill-suited to fulfill its statutory duties of whistleblower protection.” Secretary Solis has yet to respond to this joint letter.

In a statement responding to the GAO report, OSHA Assistant Secretary David Michaels said he has undertaken a “top-to-bottom review” of the program but, as PEER charges, this evaluation answers to the same dysfunctional leadership, will not consider cost codes or other budgeting reforms, and remains shrouded in secrecy.

For example, OSHA recently conducted a survey of all its whistleblower investigators but has not released the results and is trying to block a Freedom of Information Act request by PEER on the grounds that the survey results are “confidential intra-agency…opinions.”

“The world’s biggest whistleblower program is in need of real reform, not redecoration. As long as it remains inside OSHA, whistleblower protections will be marginalized,” Ruch added, noting that OSHA is overwhelmed with its health and safety functions, including a yawning backlog of chemical exposure standards. “OSHA has too much on its plate and should free itself of the functions that it has demonstrated that it cannot do.”

OSHA’s whistleblower protection program attracted a lot of national attention after workers and contractors aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig came forward with allegations of poor management and safety violations against BP and rig owner Transocean. The rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers and flooding the Gulf of Mexico with 200 million gallons of crude oil.