Washington, DC — The federal program to protect private sector whistleblowers does an appallingly poor job, according to a new report from the Labor Department Office of Inspector General. The vast majority of federal investigations missed basic steps, such as interviewing witnesses, and as a result whistleblowers who are fired or blackballed after reporting violations rarely win restoration.
OSHA is charged with enforcing the whistleblower protections of 19 laws covering approximately 200 million U.S. workers. These laws cover everything from job safety to pollution control to corporate fraud.
The new Inspector General report follows a scathing Government Accountability Office review of the whistleblower program administered by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) issued just last month. The two reports are bookends of a devastating, top-to-bottom critique and echo calls by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and other reform groups to remove the whistleblower program out from under inept OSHA management into its own bureau.
While the GAO faulted OSHA management, the Inspector General delved into specific cases. From an analysis of more than 1,200 investigations during a one-year period, the Inspector General found that whistleblowers prevailed in only 2% of cases with another 21% resulting in settlements. In the vast majority of settlements, however, the whistleblower did not win his or her job back.
This dismal success rate for whistleblowers appeared to be a direct result of shoddy investigations. The Inspector General found a whopping 80% did not meet minimum standards, omitting such basic steps as obtaining witnesses or allowing the whistleblower an opportunity to rebut the employer’s claims.
“Under OSHA, whistleblowers are like lambs led to slaughter,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the number of workers covered by these OSHA-administered programs has skyrocketed over the past decade but the number of investigators and resources devoted to them has remained relatively static. “The world’s largest whistleblower program can no longer remain a collateral function inside a dysfunctional bureaucracy; it needs a home of its own.”
PEER contends that a major problem is that top OSHA administrators are themselves hostile to whistleblowers, including investigators who complain about inadequate resources. Last week, PEER sued OSHA under the Freedom of Information Act for refusing to disclose the results of a staff survey as well as internal analyses pinpointing problems. OSHA Assistant Secretary David Michaels said he has undertaken a “top-to-bottom review” of the program but the scope of this review is limited to internal procedures and does not look at many of the larger issues, such as lack of dedicated budgets or leadership lapses.
“The bunker mentality is alive and well inside OSHA,” added Ruch, whose organization represents whistleblowers within OSHA’s staff. “Until OSHA starts treating its own workers with respect, it cannot be expected to protect Americans on the job.”