Numbers speak when summing up the importance of whistleblowers: 2,218 for 130 million. That’s how many OSHA inspectors there are (885 federal, 1,333 state) for all of the workers in the United States.

Workplaces under federal OSHA can expect a visit once every 137 years. At those under state-run OSHA programs, the average wait from one inspection to the next is 63 years.

Whistleblowers alert OSHA to hazardous situations that would otherwise take the agency years to discover.  Spread too thin to succeed on its own, OSHA regards whistleblowers as its eyes and ears for daily life on the job. The Whistleblower Protection Program, (Section 11(c) of the OSH Act) establishes procedures and protections for those who might file complaints.

However, the provisions fall short of full protection, and fear of employer retaliation keeps most would-be whistleblowers from speaking up. The implications are far-reaching, especially for the union sector. Union members do not need to blow the whistle to OSHA on unsafe practices – they can go to the union to enforce safety provisions of the contract as well as compliance with OSHA regulations. But nonunion contractors feel no pressure and regularly cut corners on safety. They keep their operating costs low, helping them sometimes outbid signatory employers.

In theory, whistleblowing levels the playing field, but without adequate employee protection, it does not.

Technically, the law bars employers from retaliating against whistleblowers, but facts show that worker fears are well-justified. A U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report finds that whistleblowers “risk reprisals.”

Here’s how: First, a years-long backlog confronts whistleblowers who submit complaints to OSHA. While the complaint is processed, the hazards and questionable business practices continue, but now with an angry employer who often finds a reason to fire the complainant.  Then, when the complaint finally does come up for review, OSHA usually rejects it. An independent media investigation reveals that OSHA dismisses about 80 percent of its whistleblower cases. Of the 279 cases brought to OSHA’s attention, Department of Labor (DOL) attorneys filed just 32 lawsuits.

For their willingness to blow the whistle, workers are far more likely to lose their jobs than to see the problems corrected. When citations and fines are levied, companies contest them, further delaying resolution.

Aware of the program’s failures, officials at the DOL are making efforts to strengthen worker protections with a series of remedies proposed in the Protecting America’s Workers Act (PAWA) now stalled in Congress. Meanwhile, David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, launched a program and website, that outlines and simplifies the process for reporting workplace hazards.

While easier reporting could be a step in the right direction, in the absence of improved protection for whistleblowers, it is unlikely that workers will feel any more comfortable blowing the whistle. They remain in the position of having to put their trust in the system which has so far failed them.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]