Good news, bad news for whistleblowing temp workers

OSHA wants employers and employees to know that temporary employees “are entitled to the same protections under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (the OSH Act) as all other covered workers.” That includes protection against retaliation for reporting hazardous or unhealthful working conditions to their employer, OSHA or other government agencies. The agency has issued a bulletin on Whistleblower Protection Rights (https://www.osha.gov/Publications/OSHA3781.pdf) in connection with its Temporary Worker Initiative,

The bad news is that whistleblower complaints from all workers fare poorly under OSHA. Nationwide, the agency found merit in only 2.7% of cases investigated from 2009 to 2014.

Only last month, NBC Bay Area broadcast the story of Russell Whitman, an investigator in OSHA’s Region 9 office, who said the agency had mishandled whistleblower complaints. Whitman told NBC his superiors pressured investigators to dismiss complaints quickly, even when investigators believed the complaints had merit. He also said a supervisor changed the conclusions of his reports, from merit to non-merit determinations, without his consent. “Whitman has lodged formal complaints all the way up to the U.S. Secretary of Labor,” reports NBC, and “says he has faced discipline for giving complainants information about how he believes OSHA management mishandled their cases.” (NBC)

Jordan Barab, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor, responded to NBC, “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.” The agency cited recent changes, including an advisory committee, staff reorganization and additional resources. (NBC)

In any case, it is disturbing that the agency so readily suggested that Whitman’s charges are “preposterous.” The Agency has a long history of mismanagement of its whistleblower protection program. In 2010, the Government Accountability Office reported, “For over 20 years, we have repeatedly found that [the agency] lacks sufficient internal controls to ensure that standards for investigating whistleblower complaints are consistently followed.”

On March 5, NBC updated the story, reporting that the Office of Special Counsel interviewed Whitman after its initial report. In addition, other government whistleblowers and members of the United Public Workers for Action (UPWA) held a rally in support of Whitman at the Region 9 office.

They have to clean this agency up,” said UPWA head Steve Zeltzer. “They have to start enforcing their law and have to start protecting whistleblowers and putting executives in jail for threatening the health and safety of workers and the public at large.” (NBC)

Indeed, along with informing workers of their rights, OSHA should make certain those rights are enforced.

 

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