OSHA chief urges stronger protections for whistleblowers

Workers in the United States needs strengthened whistleblower protections to safeguard against employer retaliation when they report hazardous conditions, a top Obama administration official said Tuesday.

Assistant Labor Secretary David Michaels, who heads the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, called upon Congress to approve legislation to bolster a set of standards laid out upon the agency’s creation more than four decades ago.

“We owe it to all workers to provide effective recourse against retaliation for those who have the courage to address wrongdoing or unsafe conditions to protect themselves and the public at large,” Michaels said in testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety.

The 1970 Occupational Health and Safety (OSH) Act contains a provision prohibiting discrimination or retaliation against employees who exercise their rights under the law. More than 20 additional statutes also contain whistleblower protections – many with stronger safeguards for workers – but the OSH Act's language has not been updated.

Michaels detailed several steps that Congress could take to strengthen the law, including provisions allowing OSHA to order immediate preliminary reinstatement of workers who may have been illegally fired.

He also called for changes to the adjudication process enabling employees to take their cases to federal court if the Labor Department fails to hear them in a timely manner, an extension of the statute of limitations for filing complaints and a revised burden of proof for identifying cases of retaliation.

Roughly 200 whistleblower retaliation cases are tossed out each year because they are brought too late, Michaels said.

Sen. Robert Casey (D-Pa.), the panel’s chairman, backed the proposal, noting that the OSHA has only one inspector for every 69,000 workers in the country.

Casey lamented that the whistleblower-protection provisions “still leave me with concerns about workers’ ability to freely identify hazards” without fear of reproach.

The subcommittee’s top Republican, Sen. Johnny Isakson (Ga.), appeared less enthusiastic about the plan, arguing that employers have financial incentives, such as workers compensation responsibilities, along with moral and ethical obligations to protect their workers.

“It’s an attitudinal thing that we need to promote,” he said.

Members of the panel noted that legislative action on the issue could take time, and urged Michaels to use available resources to ensure worker safety. Michaels countered that congressional action would be required to make the proposed changes to the statute.

“The law’s very clear,” he told reporters. “There’s not really a regulatory approach beyond what’s in the law.”