OSHA must speed up its handling of whistleblower complaints, inspector general says

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration needs to better handle whistleblower complaints amid the potential for greater delays in closing investigations during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a report from the U.S. Labor Department’s Office of Inspector General. 

The inspector general’s office said it found the number of whistleblower complaints OSHA has been receiving climbed significantly during the pandemic, while OSHA’s whistleblower program full-time employment has decreased.

Investigators told the inspector each investigator optimally would not have a caseload of more than 20 open investigations at once, according to the report. But investigators said the number of open investigations have ranged from 19 to 45 this year, compared to 15 to 40 last year.

There is a potential for even greater delays than before the pandemic in closing investigations, and OSHA needs to improve its handling of whistleblower complaints, the inspector said.

“Prior to the pandemic, OSHA began a triage pilot intended to expedite the complaint screening process and also reassigned older complaints from regions with large backlogs to regions with lesser backlogs,” according to the report. “However, OSHA had not utilized a similar approach during the pandemic to more evenly distribute whistleblower complaints.”

The inspector recommended that OSHA continue to monitor and evaluate the triage pilot and consider extending the triage process to all regions to speed up whistleblower complaint screening. It also recommended that OSHA fill current whistleblower investigator vacancies and develop a caseload management plan to more equitably distribute whistleblower complaints among investigators. 

In response to the report, an OSHA spokesperson told Becker’s Hospital Review strengthening the whistleblower complaint process remains one of OSHA’s top priorities. 

“OSHA is constantly looking for ways to improve the WPP [Whistleblower Protection Program], including the proper utilization of pilot programs and by seeking public input through stakeholder meetings,” the agency said in an emailed statement. 

OSHA specifically noted that it has already processed more than half of COVID-19-related complaints and said it continues to issue new guidance to staff, strengthen collaborations with partner agencies and develop new customer service and outreach tools.

The agency said it will continue working constantly to find ways to protect whistleblowers.

 

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