The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has launched a test run for its first severe violator enforcement program for employers that continually and willfully disregard the rights of whistleblowers.
OSHA’s Whistleblower-Severe Violator Enforcement Program (W-SVEP) will be modeled after a similar program that has been in use for years – the Severe Violator Program, which helps regulators deal with employers that routinely ignore federal workplace safety and health regulations and protects workers by bringing workplaces up to code.
OSHA’s Whistleblower-Severe Violator Enforcement Program became effective May 27, 2016, in Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and companies under federal enforcement in Iowa.
The new program is designed to identify employers “that engage in egregious behavior and blatant retaliation against workers who report unsafe working conditions and violations of the law,” according to Karena Lorek of OSHA’s Kansas City Office, which oversees the region where the pilot program is in effect.
“When employers retaliate against workers who exercise their legal rights, other workers may suffer a chilling effect and fear exercising their rights to speak up,” Ms. Lorek said. “Problems don’t get fixed, and workers get hurt. Employers that act in that manner deserve greater public scrutiny and a powerful response from OSHA.”
Employers will be enrolled in the Whistleblower-Severe Violator Enforcement Program if they meet one or more of four criteria, including repeated whistleblower cases with merit; whistleblower cases in companies already in the Severe Violator Enforcement Program; and whistleblower cases deemed worthy by special circumstances, such as egregious citations and workplace fatality.
OSHA will place companies that meet one or more of the criteria the W-SVEP log. After three years, a company may petition the regional administrator for a follow-up visit and removal from the program. At that point, OSHA will conduct a comprehensive review of the company’s policies and practices to determine if it has sufficiently addressed and corrected the retaliation and its effects.
OSHA said that if the success of the Severe Violator Program, which began in 2010, is any indication, its whistleblower counterpart should improve workplace safety and shield whistleblowers from backlash.
“We hope that the W-SVEP pilot will be the catalyst that causes companies to change their behavior and instill a culture that restores employee confidence and reshapes the employer’s perspective on whistleblowing,” Ms. Lorek said, adding that four large employers in her region would have met the criteria for inclusion in the new program in the last three years.