OSHA’s program to protect whistleblowers – workers who speak up when they witness a safety hazard or other type of industry wrongdoing -- may be failing to afford that protection, according to an NBC TV San Francisco Bay Area investigation.
NBC’s investigative unit reporters quoted Darrell Whitman, an OSHA investigator, as claiming, “OSHA is hostile to whistleblowers.”
Working out of OSHA’s Region 9 headquarters in San Francisco, Whitman for the past five years has examined complaints from workers who have been fired for going public about problems in 22 industries ranging from pipeline safety and food production to aviation and nuclear defense.
“It is so incredibly absurd that we have placed our faith in these people who have no intention of following through to protect the public,” he told the NBC Bay Area TV affiliate.
Whitman told reporters that after he began his job in 2010 he discovered his superiors pressured OSHA employees to rush investigations to eliminate a growing backlog of cases and dismiss complaints even when Whitman found they had merit.
OSHA statistics indicate only a small number of investigations result in merit findings -- so-called victories for the whistleblower. From 2009 to 2014 OSHA’s Region 9 issued merit findings 16 times out of 562 investigations, or 2.8 percent. The region settled an additional 23 percent of cases. During the same time period, the Whistleblower Protection Program as a whole found merit in 2.7 percent of cases and settled 15 percent.
Whitman offered NBC this explanation for the low percentages: OSHA is only after numbers – meeting quotas -- not completed investigations. Similar concerns have been raised over the years regarding pressure to meet OSHA inspection quotas. It’s an alleged case of quantity over quality.
A 2010 audit conducted by the Office of Inspector General in the Department of Labor found that OSHA “did not always ensure that complainants received appropriate investigations.” Other internal reviews and reports have criticized OSHA for its low merit rate and inattention to longstanding program weaknesses, according to the NBC Bay Area investigative report.
OSHA declined to comment to reporters but said the department has reinvigorated the Whistleblower Protection Program since 2009 by adding resources, reorganizing staff and establishing an advisory committee to recommend changes.
"Based on the progress we have made in improving the program, the allegations made by some are preposterous," Jordan Barab, OSHA's Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor said in a statement. "We have made progress on addressing the backlog, increased the number of settlements and merit cases and significantly increased the amount of damages from employers who have retaliated against workers."