Watchdog: OSHA whistleblower protection program still falls short

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration's whistleblower protection program still doesn't meet minimum performance standards, according to a new report.

In an audit released last week, the Labor Department inspector general found 80 percent of OSHA investigations missed important steps, such as interviewing witnesses or conducting on-site work, leaving whistleblowers vulnerable to adverse actions from employers. The program is designed to shield private sector workers from retaliation for reporting suspected fraud, waste and abuse related to health, safety, environmental and consumer product practices.

OSHA has failed to give investigators comprehensive training and guidance, the IG found. For example, the agency has not updated its written guidelines since 2003 and does not provide investigators access to technical experts in specific whistleblower regulations. In addition, OSHA should improve its supervision and management of investigators' cases and develop metrics to track performance, the audit found.

The IG report follows concerns from the Government Accountability Office that OSHA has not provided employees the necessary tools to conduct investigations. The program lacks sufficient investigator training, expense tracking and performance metrics, according to GAO's August audit.

"Under OSHA, whistleblowers are like lambs led to slaughter," Jeff Ruch, executive director of the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said in a statement. "The world's largest whistleblower program can no longer remain a collateral function inside a dysfunctional bureaucracy; it needs a home of its own."

David Michaels, assistant secretary of Labor for occupational safety and health, said OSHA agrees with the IG recommendations and is conducting a comprehensive review of its policies, including whether to restructure the program's leadership.

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