Department of Labor Report Finds OSHA Must Improve Handling of Whistleblower Complaints

Department of Labor Report - OSHA Whistleblower Complaints

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) must improve its handling of whistleblower complaints during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, according to a newly published report by the U.S. Labor Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG). The report details how the combination of staffing shortages within OSHA’s whistleblower protection program and a rise in whistleblower complaints due to the coronavirus pandemic has the potential to severely hinder the agency’s ability to investigate claims in a timely manner.

The report follows an audit of OSHA completed as part of Phase 1 of the OIG’s Pandemic Oversight Response Plan. The OIG conducted interviews, reviewed internal notifications, and analyzed whistleblower complaint data in order to answer the question: “What impact have COVID-19 whistleblower complaints had on OSHA, and how has OSHA addressed COVID-19 whistleblower complaints?”

According to the OIG’s report, the ongoing pandemic has greatly increased the number of whistleblower complaints to the OSHA. The pandemic has resulted in a 30% jump in whistleblower complaints during its first four months (February through May) compared to the same period in 2019. While whistleblower complaints have risen, the number of full-time staff in the OSHA Whistleblower Program has decreased. According to the OIG, the optimal caseload for individual OSHA investigators would be no more than 20 open investigations at once. However, depending on the region, investigators reported the number of open investigations ranged from 19 to 45. According to the report, “OSHA was challenged to complete investigations in a timely manner before the pandemic, and the potential exists for even greater delays now.”

The report details that prior to the pandemic, OSHA implemented a pilot triage program to expedite the complaint screening process and reassign older complaints from regions with large backlogs to regions with lesser backlogs. However, OSHA has not utilized a similar approach in handling backlogs during the pandemic.

In the report, the OIG outlines three recommendations made to OSHA. First, they recommend that OSHA fill the five current whistleblower investigator vacancies. Second, they recommend the continuation and possible expansion of the pilot triage program. And lastly, they recommend that OSHA develop a caseload management plan to distribute cases among investigators more evenly. The OIG claims that OSHA agrees with these recommendations.

The OIG summarized the report’s findings by stating that “OSHA needs to improve its handling of whistleblower complaints. When OSHA fails to respond in a timely manner, it could leave workers to suffer emotionally and financially, and may also lead to the erosion of key evidence and witnesses.”

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