Whistleblower Protection Program: Opportunities Exist for OSHA and DOT to Strengthen Collaborative Mechanisms

Source: U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), GAO-14-286, March 19, 2014

From the summary:
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has taken steps to include auto industry employees in its Whistleblower Protection Program and has coordinated with the Department of Transportation (DOT) on whistleblower issues, but interagency collaborative mechanisms could be strengthened. Among other steps, OSHA is developing procedures for how it will investigate claims from auto employees and estimates most of its efforts will be completed in 2014. OSHA documents its collaboration with DOT’s component agencies on whistleblower protections by developing memorandums of agreements (MOA), and currently MOAs cover aviation and rail employees; the agencies are considering developing MOAs to cover other transportation sectors such as commercial motor-carrier employees. Officials from both OSHA and DOT believe it is important to identify or refer potential claims of retaliation and safety violations to each other. In September 2012, GAO concluded that collaboration is critical when meaningful results that the federal government seeks to achieve require the coordinated efforts of more than one federal agency. Among others, key practices of effective collaboration include clearly delineating roles and responsibilities and monitoring progress. OSHA and DOT officials agree that following GAO’s key practices would be beneficial. However, the agencies have an opportunity to strengthen current and future MOAs by clearly delineating roles and responsibilities, and determining how the agencies’ efforts will be monitored and evaluated. For example, the current MOAs do not clearly define agency roles and responsibilities with respect to developing training on whistleblower issues and regional coordination. Defining such responsibilities could help ensure beneficial training occurs and the agencies avoid miscommunication and inconsistent whistleblower processes involving referrals between the agencies’ regional offices. Additionally, since the agencies have not developed or documented how they would monitor referrals, neither OSHA nor DOT can assess whether the referral process is working as intended. By monitoring and evaluating the outcomes of referrals, the agencies would have more assurance that they are addressing the safety violations and claims of retaliation raised by transportation-related employees.

The number of transportation-related whistleblower claims filed with OSHA has increased in the last 6 years—from 508 in fiscal year 2008 to 821 in fiscal year 2013—and GAO’s interviews with transportation industry stakeholders identified several factors that might affect those numbers and how they could be interpreted. These factors include multiple avenues to address safety issues, employee awareness of whistleblower protections, and statutory whistleblower provisions, among others. The identified factors are not mutually exclusive and could either increase or decrease the number of whistleblower claims. For example, officials representing three transportation modes noted that multiple safety-reporting mechanisms, such as anonymous hotlines, can indirectly affect whether employees file whistleblower claims since employees are less likely to face retaliation when reporting safety issues anonymously. Regarding statutory whistleblower provisions, the statute covering rail employees provides the largest number of protected activities, and this protection, according to rail industry officials, has enabled rail employees to file more whistleblower claims than other transportation employees.