Whistleblower Protection:

Sustained Management Attention Needed to Address Long-standing Program Weaknesses

GAO-10-722: Published: Aug 17, 2010. Publicly Released: Sep 16, 2010.

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Workers who "blow the whistle" on prohibited or unlawful practices that they discover during their employment can play an important role in the enforcement of federal laws. However, these whistleblowers may also risk reprisals from their employers, sometimes being demoted, reassigned, or fired. Federal laws establish whistleblower protection processes, whereby workers who believe that they have faced retaliation for blowing the whistle can report their allegations to the appropriate federal agency, which then determines the merit of their claims. The Whistleblower Protection Program at the Department of Labor's (Labor) Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is responsible for receiving and investigating most whistleblower complaints filed by nonfederal workers.

We found that OSHA has done little to ensure that investigators have the necessary training and equipment to do their jobs, and that it lacks sufficient internal controls to ensure that the whistleblower program operates as intended. More specifically, we found the following: (1) OSHA enhanced its whistleblower training, establishing two mandatory 2-week courses between 2007 and 2008, but has not ensured attendance or taken steps to ensure that investigators have necessary equipment to do their jobs; (2) OSHA lacks sufficient internal controls to ensure that the whistleblower program operates as intended due to several factors, including inconsistent program operations, inadequate tracking of program expenses, and insufficient performance monitoring. Program operations vary by region in significant ways, as exemplified by differing standards used to screen out complaints, and by some regions not having formally trained supervisors who approve investigation decisions. The whistleblower program's national office lacks mechanisms, such as access to accurate data and actual case files, to monitor compliance with policies and procedures. We provided a draft of this report to OSHA for its review and comment. In its response, OSHA concurred with two of our recommendations and cited ongoing activities in areas covered by the other three. OSHA also expressed concern with some of our findings.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: All whistleblower investigators who had not completed OSHA's basic training have since completed the mandatory training courses. Additionally, OSHA requires all new whistleblower investigators to complete OSHA's two mandatory whistleblower training courses.

    Recommendation: To improve program performance and oversight, the Secretary of Labor should require OSHA to ensure that all investigators complete mandatory training.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: OSHA has restructured its field organization such that all whistleblower investigators report directly to a regional supervisory investigator. All regional supervisory investigators have received formal investigator training.

    Recommendation: To improve program performance and oversight, the Secretary of Labor should require OSHA to require staff who supervise investigators to complete the mandatory investigator training.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Starting with its fiscal year 2012 budget, OSHA developed a separate line item for the whistleblower program so it could better track the program's expenses and report them to Congress.

    Recommendation: To improve program performance and oversight, the Secretary of Labor should require OSHA to track whistleblower program expenses, including FTEs, separately from other OSHA programs, and annually report these expenses to Congress.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: An action plan was developed and several steps were taken to address identified internal control weaknesses. For example, the Office of Whistleblower Protection Program was elevated into an OSHA directorate in late 2012 with its director reporting to OSHA's Deputy Assistant Secretary. The Office of Whistleblower Protection Program also revised and published a comprehensive investigations manual.

    Recommendation: To improve program performance and oversight, the Secretary of Labor should require OSHA to develop an action plan, with specific milestones, for addressing identified internal control weaknesses. This plan should include mechanisms for strengthening the whistleblower national office's control over the program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  5. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In March 2014, the Department of Labor (DOL) added a goal to its strategic plan for OSHA's whistleblower protection program. The plan names two measures related to this goal but does not include baseline and target data for them. Without this information, the agency cannot track progress as we had recommended.

    Recommendation: To improve program performance and oversight, the Secretary of Labor should require OSHA to incorporate strategic goals specifically for the whistleblower program into Labor's strategic plan, and develop performance measures to track progress in achieving these goals.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

 

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