OSHA Half-Steps Won’t Heal Broken Whistleblower Program
New Layer of Bureaucracy Feeds into Same Regional Structure Scorched in Reviews
Washington, DC — The U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration unveiled small reforms that are unlikely to fix deep problems in its widely criticized whistleblower protection program, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). PEER is renewing its call to take the troubled whistleblower program out of OSHA completely, as the new changes will actually take more investigators out of the field unless OSHA gets unexpected congressional approval for more staff.
The OSHA whistleblower program is charged with protecting millions of workers who report violations under 21 statutes, including recently enacted food safety, health care and Wall Street reform laws. Over the past several months, the program has drawn thorough-going, scathing reviews by the Labor Office of Inspector General, the Government Accountability Office and whistleblower advocacy groups. Even an internal survey of program managers showed less than 7% think the current program is effective.
The largest change announced last week by Assistant Secretary David Michaels is to create a new layer of Assistant Regional Administrators to oversee the program, moving it outside the Enforcement Directorate but not creating a new directorate or a coordinated national program. This move is questionable because –
- This new layer of managers reports to the same Regional Administrators who have mismanaged the program for decades;
- The program will lack any organizational coherence or heft to push for more resources or regulatory attention from an OSHA bureaucracy which stills treats it with indifference; and
- This new level of bureaucracy will come out of the fiscal hide of an already swamped and vastly under-funded corps of investigators, even as Congress keeps expanding its workload.
“These reforms are like OSHA saying it only wants to be a little bit pregnant,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization had to sue to obtain the internal results and is still in litigation for documents showing that top agency managers have known about deep-seated problems for years without taking action. “OSHA is doing too little too late to salvage a sinking whistleblower program.”
Other steps announced by OSHA only emphasize how neglected the whistleblower program has been:
- Starting next fiscal year, the whistleblower program will have its own budgetary line item. Heretofore, the agency could not provide even basic accounting for personnel or resources;
- A new manual so that investigative procedures will be uniform. An example of a long overdue process reform is that investigators must actually interview the workers who file complaints; and
- OSHA will finally begin auditing whistleblower investigations, so that it can for the first time evaluate results and perhaps someday develop performance standards.
“The limited vision shown by these changes only reinforces the argument that the whistleblower program needs to be removed from OSHA if it is to ever function effectively,” Ruch concluded. “The world’s largest whistleblower protection program should not be run as an afterthought.”