HR News & Trends, Legal Issues

Whistleblower Wins $820,000 Settlement Against OSHA

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By Howard Mavity

OSHA enforces more whistleblower laws than any other agency and has made whistleblower protection one of its principal goals. So it grabs your attention when you read Whistleblower Wins $820,000 Settlement Against OSHA.

OSHA’s foremost official overseeing injury record keeping for 25 years claimed that the Occupational Safety & Health Administration retaliated against him because he repeatedly spoke out internally and externally, and before Congress and the media about his belief that employers significantly underreported workplace injuries, and OSHA was not doing much about it.

Many employers and safety professionals would argue that this gentleman was wrong about massive employers underreporting, but that’s not the issue. Was he retaliated against because he spoke out … even intemperately?

What OSHA did wrong

The Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, VA. found evidence that D.C. OSHA leadership:

  • Plotted to “get” the employee for embarrassing the agency;
  • Conducted a trumped-up investigation to justify his removal; and,
  • Discharged him for participating in a loud dispute with a co-worker for similar actions.

Read the Settlement Agreement and Fourth Circuit decision.

Lessons?

The employee may have got it wrong about underreporting – his claims may have been inaccurate. And any employer can understand the agency’s leadership fuming about an employee publicly embarrassing the organization. Unfortunately, neither an inaccurate safety complaint or publicly embarrassing the organization justifies adverse action.

This former OSHA employee’s burningly passionate belief that employers intentionally under record and report workplace injuries is shared by others in OSHA, unions and even safety groups. Never doubt OSHA’s “continuing” commitment to address what it sees as record keeping violations and related adverse action against employees who report recordable injuries.

Notwithstanding being bitten by their own system, OSHA’s leadership and the U.S. Department of Labor generally remain determined to promote whistleblower claims. Just this week, OSHA teed up possibly allowing electronic filing of whistleblower claims.

Increasing distrust in the agency

Based on my time at the NLRB and 30 years of observations, that’s a bad idea. Complainants need to deal with an officer of the day or similar person to describe their complaints. The official can better pull out the salient facts, or discourage frivolous claims.

If indeed OSHA leadership harassed and terminated an employee because he embarrassed the Agency, this occurrence will increase any distrust of the current leadership’s respect for procedure and process. Observers have already commented on OSHA’s use of directives and interpretations to change things that should be addressed by rule making and legislation … or by the Agency’s often harsh “regulation by shame.”

Traditionally, regardless of the administration, OSHA has enjoyed a reputation for professionalism, and that reputation is essential to its mission.

This was originally published on Fisher & Phillips’ Workplace Safety and Health Law Blog.

Howard Mavity is a senior partner in the Atlanta office of the law firm Fisher & Phillips. He co-chairs the firm's Workplace Safety and Catastrophe Management Practice Group, and has provided counsel for over 200 occasions of union activity, guided unionized companies. In addition, he has managed almost 400 OSHA fatality cases in construction and general industry, ranging from dust explosions to building collapses, in virtually every state. Contact him at hmavity@laborlawyers.com .