GAO Questions the Effectiveness of Labor Department’s Whistleblower Protection Program

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report last Thursday, September 16th, questioning the adequacy of the protection offered to whistleblowers by the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The report indicates that OSHA, created to ensure safe and healthy working conditions for employees, is not doing enough to protect whistleblowers from retaliatory action by their employers. OSHA’s whistleblower protection program was established to receive and investigate cases presented by non-federal workers, but it is believed the program is being neglected. The GAO’s report suggests that OSHA has invested little in the provision of training and equipment for investigators.

Previous reports, including one performed by the Center for Public Integrity, show that OSHA has dismissed a significant number of whistleblower claims. Since 2002, just over 2% of these claims have been upheld under the law. Responding to the release of these startling statistics, Assistant Secretary of Labor, David Michaels has expressed his concern and has ordered that the entire program be reviewed. Prior to the report’s issuance, the Labor Department was accused of very narrowly interpreting the existing whistleblowing law. As such, many claims were dismissed based on the quick determination that the individuals did not qualify as whistleblowers. Michaels stresses that OSHA is committed to protecting whistleblowers from retaliation and has begun to pursue some of the reforms recommended by the GAO.

Many plaintiffs’ attorneys are hopeful that Michaels, as well as other appointed members of the Obama administration, will be more proactive in advancing whistleblower protections than their predecessors.  There do remain some doubts, however, as to whether the Department of Labor possesses the required staff and resources to thoroughly review the whistleblower cases presented to them. This is a critical issue that will require further investigation and potential reform in the future.

*Elizabeth Finkelman (a NWC intern) drafted this posting.

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