OSHA is seeing a significant increase in the number of whistleblower complaints it’s receiving during the coronavirus pandemic, which could further delay the agency’s ability to investigate, a new report says.

“We found the pandemic has significantly increased the number of whistleblower complaints OSHA has been receiving, ” the U.S. Labor Department’s Office of Inspector General wrote in its report.

“OSHA was challenged to complete investigations in a timely manner before the pandemic, and the potential exists for even greater delays now.”

The rise in whistleblower complaints comes as the Whistleblower Program’s full-time employment has decreased.

“Amid this challenge, OSHA needs to improve its handling of whistleblower complaints,” the report said

“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.”

Safety, Health Concerns

The report said the pandemic has raised concerns about the safety and health of workers, and how people who report potential workplace safety violations are protected.

“News articles have depicted alleged employer retaliation against employees who reported potential workplace safety violations during COVID-19, including social distancing and personal protective equipment violations,” the report noted.

OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program enforces 23 whistleblower statutes that prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who report workplace safety and other violations.

The OIG urged OSHA to step up its effort to investigate whistleblower complaints.

“As COVID-19 illnesses and deaths continue to rise, OSHA needs to act quickly to investigate whistleblower complaints so employees feel protected when reporting unsafe working conditions,” the report said.

The OIG said it did the report because “the pandemic has raised concerns about the safety and health of workers, and the protections afforded to workers who report potential workplace safety violations, including those violations involving social distancing and personal protective equipment.”

Findings

Among the report’s findings are:

  • OSHA received 30% more whistleblower complaints (4,101) during the first four months of the COVID-19 pandemic than during the same period in 2019 (3,152).
  • In the quarter ending March 2020, OSHA took an average of 279 days to close an investigation—a 41-day increase from the 238 days reported in a 2015 OIG audit
  • Each of OSHA’s 10 regional offices received more complaints between February and May 2020 than during the same period last year
  • The average number of whistleblower complaints received per investigator also increased—from 41 between February and May 2019, to 53 during the same period in 2020

Recommendations

The OIG’s three specific recommendations are for OSHA to fill five current whistleblower investigator vacancies, continue to monitor a triage pilot being used in Region 2 and consider expanding it to all regions, and develop a caseload management plan to more evenly distribute whistleblower complaints among investigators.

In a response letter, Loren Sweatt of OSHA said strengthening the whistleblower program “continues to be one of OSHA’s top priorities.”

OSHA said it agreed with the first two recommendations and, before the pandemic, was taking steps to address the uneven workload distribution among investigators.

“This process began early this year,” said Sweatt, OSHA’s principal deputy assistant secretary.

“The agency plans to continue this process until a more reasonable balance exists across the regions.”


For more information, contact CBIA’s Phillip Montgomery (860.244.1982).