Whistleblower Protection Program: Better Data and Improved Oversight Would Help Ensure Program Quality and Consistency

Source: Government Accountability Office, GAO-09-106, January 27, 2009

From the summary:
Labor lacks reliable information on processing times and, as a result, cannot accurately report how long it takes to investigate and close a case or decide on certain appeals. OSHA does not have an effective mechanism to ensure that the data are accurately recorded in its database, and GAO’s file reviews revealed that the key dates are often inaccurately recorded in the database or cannot be verified due to a lack of supporting documentation. For example, in one region visited, none of the case closed dates matched the documentation in case files. At the appeals level, the reliability of information on the processing times is mixed. Timeliness data at the OALJ level are reliable, and the OALJ completed appealed cases in an average of about 9 months in fiscal year 2007. In contrast, ARB data are unreliable, and the agency lacks sufficient oversight of data quality. GAO’s file review found that ARB processing times ranged from 30 days to over 5 years. At all levels of the whistleblower program, GAO found that increasing caseloads, case complexity, and accommodating requests from the parties’ legal counsel affect case processing times. Whistleblowers received a favorable outcome in a minority of cases that were closed in fiscal year 2007, both at initial decision and on appeal, but the actual proportion may be somewhat lower than Labor’s data show. OSHA’s data show that whistleblowers received a favorable outcome in 21 percent of complaints–nearly all settled through a separate agreement involving the whistleblower and the employer, rather than through a decision rendered by OSHA. However, GAO found several problems in the way settlements were being recorded in OSHA’s database, and a review of settlement agreements suggests that the proportion of cases found to have merit may actually be about 19 percent. As with investigations, when whistleblower complaints were appealed, decisions favored the whistleblower in a minority of the cases–one-third or less of outcomes favored the whistleblower. With respect to administering the whistleblower program, OSHA faces two key challenges–it lacks a mechanism to adequately ensure the quality and consistency of investigations, and many investigators said they lack certain resources they need to do their jobs, including equipment, training, and legal assistance. OSHA does not routinely conduct independent audits of the program to ensure consistent application of its policies and procedures. OSHA’s new field audit program has begun to address this need but is lacking in several key areas. For example, the current audit processes do not adequately provide for independence, an important aspect of an effective audit program. Moreover, OSHA is challenged to ensure that investigators in all regions have the resources they need to address their large and complex caseloads. OSHA has not established minimum equipment standards for its investigators, and nearly half of the whistleblower investigators reported that the equipment they have does not meet the needs of their jobs. Furthermore, investigators often cite the need for more training and legal assistance on the complex federal statutes that OSHA administers.

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