Washington, DC — Over the past decade, Congress has charged the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration with enforcing far-reaching new whistleblower laws, including this year’s health care law, consumer product safety rules, and corporate malfeasance safeguards, but has not provided funding or staff to protect millions of workers from retaliation for reporting violations, according to an analysis released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result, OSHA’s whistleblower program is hopelessly overwhelmed, lacking in programmatic leadership and adrift.
Since 1970 when it was created, OSHA has been mandated to police the prohibition against employers retaliating against workers who report health and safety violations and dangers. Over the next 40 years, Congress enacted 17 other whistleblower provisions covering complex pollution, energy production, and transportation laws, among others, for OSHA implementation and oversight. Recent examples include:
• The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, covering 12 million health care workers;
• The Consumer Protection Safety Improvement Act of 2008, covering 20 million workers involved in manufacture, labeling, distributing, and retailing products; and
• Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 to control corporate fraud, covering 42 million financial workers.
Altogether, OSHA’s whistleblower jurisdiction has grown by a staggering 75 million workers in just the past decade, nearly doubling its previous coverage. These numbers exclude the estimated 115 million workers already covered by the whistleblower provisions of the Occupational Safety & Health Act of 1970 – OSHA’s main responsibility.
By contrast, the number of OSHA staff assigned to investigate worker reprisal complaints has remained virtually static: 69 investigators, 8 supervisory investigators and 1 manager, according to a 2009 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that faulted oversight and management of the program.
“OSHA has no hope of competently executing these vast duties with fewer resources to cover the nation’s entire workforce than those available to a typical big county prosecutor’s office,” said PEER Policy Director Erica Rosenberg, pointing out that OSHA whistleblower coverage has grown by more than 1 million workers for each investigator just since 2000. “This yawning disparity inevitably leads to unconscionable and illegal delays, shoddy reviews, unmanageable caseloads and poor outcomes for workers. Thus, workers who risk their jobs to report serious dangers and major violations will, in effect, find nobody home at OSHA.”
Unfortunately, the whistleblower protection program does not appear to be on the radar of the agency’s leadership. A 2010 draft strategic plan for OSHA makes no mention of whistleblower protection, even in the summary of the agency’s mission statement. In its report, GAO also noted that the whistleblower protection program does not even have its own budget but is subject to the whims of regional administrators who divvy up an enforcement budget for an array of labor violations.
“Whistleblower protection at OSHA is not just on the back burner, it has fallen off the stove,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that for workers without access to lawyers, these OSHA investigations are usually the only shield against unemployment and blackballing. “Clearly, additional resources are needed but so are vision and commitment from OSHA’s leadership.”
Tomorrow, May 11th, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health David Michaels will speak on this topic at a forum entitled “Whistleblowers and OSHA: Strengthening Professional Integrity” sponsored by Professionals for the Public Interest at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1200 New York Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. beginning at 12:30 pm.