GAO Report Calls for Improvements in OSHA’s Whistleblower Program

On Sept. 16, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report detailing weaknesses in OSHA’s whistleblower program and recommended several actions to improve the program’s effectiveness and efficiency.

GAO has reported on OSHA’s whistleblower protections for more than 20 years and most recently issued findings and criticisms of the program in January 2009. The new report, “Sustained Management Attention Needed to Address Long-Standing Program Weaknesses,” was based on an audit conducted from March-June 2010. GAO set out to determine what steps OSHA has taken to ensure whistleblower investigators have the necessary training and equipment and if adequate internal controls are in place.

“In summary, we found that OSHA has done little to ensure that investigators have the necessary training and equipment to do their jobs, and that it lacks sufficient internal controls to ensure that the whistleblower program operates as intended,” wrote George A. Scott, GAO director of education, workforce and income security issues, in the report’s introductory letter.

“Finally, OSHA has not made assessing program performance a priority, as evidenced by the lack of program-specific goals or measures in key performance documents,” Scott added.

GAO recommended that OSHA take the following actions to help improve program performance and oversight:

  • Ensure that all investigators complete mandatory training.
  • Require staff who supervise investigators to complete the mandatory investigator training.
  • Track whistleblower program expenses separately from other OSHA programs and annually report these expenses to Congress.
  • Develop an action plan, with specific milestones, for addressing identified internal control weaknesses. This plan should include mechanisms for strengthening the whistleblower national office’s control over the program.
  • Incorporate strategic goals specifically for the whistleblower program into the department’s strategic plan and develop performance measures to track progress in achieving these goals.

Michaels: OSHA is Taking Action

In his statement following the report’s release, OSHA Administrator Dr. David Michaels stressed that Department of Labor leadership “profoundly understands the cornerstone position that whistleblower protections have in the foundation of a strong worker protection program.”

“With our available resources, OSHA is working hard to ensure that whistleblowers are protected from retaliation,” Michaels said. “We are in the process of a top-to-bottom review of OSHA’s whistleblower protection program. This comprehensive review will cover policy, resources, equipment and work processes. The objective is to identify any weaknesses and inefficiencies in the program and improve the way we conduct this very important activity. In addition, we have hired additional personnel in the past year in an effort to more efficiently process cases.”

Michaels added that OSHA has begun taking action on GAO’s recommendations, such as requiring investigators and supervisors to complete mandatory training over the next 18 months; setting strategic goals and performance measures; and providing new equipment to filed staff.

“We are still studying other recommendations from the GAO, and appreciate their review and input.”

OSHA enforces the whistleblower provisions of 19 laws protecting employees who report violations of various securities, trucking, airline, nuclear, pipeline, environmental, railroad, public transportation, workplace safety and health, consumer product safety, health care reform, and financial reform laws. More information on employee whistleblower rights, including fact sheets, is available online at http://www.whistleblowers.gov.

Download a PDF of the GAO report.

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