September 17, 2010 The Pump Handle 0Comment

In the words of Myron Levin at Fair Warning:

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) once again has ripped the whistleblower protection program. ….[It] blames glaring weaknesses on chronic inattention from OSHA leaders.”

This latest GAO assessment, “Sustained management attention needed to address long-standing program weaknesses,” is an update on a more comprehensive review the oversight agency released in January 2009. GAO analysts continue to identify serious deficiencies in the practices and procedures used by OSHA to ensure that the investigation and disposition of whistleblower complaints are handled as Congress intended. As I noted in a post earlier this year, OSHA’s lack of “internal controls” meant that GAO investigators could barely even conduct an assessment because the agency’s electronic data and case files were a mess. Nearly two years into the Obama/Solis Administration, GAO suggests that little has changed in the way OSHA manages its whistleblower protection program.

“[OSHA’s] 10 regions operate autonomously and are able to make key decisions with only limited oversight and accountability, including… how to investigate and process cases, such as screening complaints,… deciding case outcomes, and how to allocate resources….”

I was surprised to read that many of the OSHA personnel responsible for these cases have still not had adequate training to do their jobs effectively. This particular deficiency was identified by GAO 17 months ago in their earlier report. If you read that report, the matter of training —-lack of, need for, etc.—-is mentioned dozens and dozens of time. In this new audit, GAO says that nearly 40 percent of the OSHA staff have still not had the necessary 1-2 week training class. The auditors found the training deficiency in five of OSHA’s ten regions: Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlanta and Dallas. Perhaps these are the biggest and busiest OSHA offices—-even more reason for OSHA’s top managers to ensure the whistleblower investigators have the tools they need to do their jobs.

The agency’s response to this finding:

“[OSHA]…will ensure that all investigators complete the second-level training within the next 18 months.”

Let’s see….that’ll be….April 2012 or so. Dismal promises like this are the reason that some worker rights advocates (here, here) are fed up with OSHA’s management of its whistleblower responsibilities. I suspect the following from GAO reinforces their views:

• Whistleblowers will continue to have little assurance that a complaint filed in one region would have the same outcome if it were filed in another.

• Serious questions remain about whether the whistleblower program is appropriately structured or that the national office has sufficient control mechanisms to ensure the quality and consistency of investigations.

• Without improved accountability for program resources, it may be difficult for OSHA to demonstrate that it is using the resources as Congress intended.

• Absent goals specifically related to the whistleblower program, OSHA will continue to lack the ability to gauge program performance.

OSHA’s assistant secretary David Michaels disagrees with critics who say the program is not a priority.

“It has been said that OSHA’s ‘whistleblower protection program does not appear to be on the radar of the agency’s leadership. I respectfully disagree. This may have been true in the past, but currently, the leadership of the Department of Labor understands profoundly the cornerstone position that whistleblower protections have in the foundation of a strong worker protection program.”

I believe Dr. Michaels’ words are sincere, but the proposals offered by OSHA seem too little too late. In a prepared statement following the public release of the GAO report, the OSHA chief 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 the agency’s response to GAO, the self-study is described further:

“The Deputy Assistant Secretary for Enforcement and Field Operations in OSHA is exploring a variety of issues, including internal control weaknesses. For example, the Agency is looking at restructuring the office to assure better training and regional oversight. Currently, an evaluation team is conducting an in-depth program evaluation assessment of the Whistleblower Program in the field and National Office.”

Curiously, these reviews are being led by the senior official who, before being promoted to an OSHA deputy, most recently had top responsibility for the whistleblower program.

GAO was not impressed.

“OSHA’s management already has the information it needs to address many of its internal control weaknesses.”

Critics would add, OSHA hardly needs yet another review—especially one that doesn’t even bother with the appearance of objectivity.

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