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OSHA pilot targets severe violators of whistleblower rules

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The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has launched a pilot program targeting severe violators of whistleblower rights.

The agency's Whistleblower-Severe Violator Enforcement Program will be similar to its Severe Violator Enforcement Program, which focuses resources on inspecting employers who, according to the agency, have demonstrated indifference to their Occupational Safety and Health Act obligations through willful, repeated or failure-to-abate violations.

The new pilot program became effective May 27 in the agency's Kansas City region, which includes employers in Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska and companies under federal enforcement in Iowa.

The Whistleblower-Severe Violator Enforcement Program “will focus on employers that engage in egregious behavior and blatant retaliation against workers who report unsafe working conditions and violations of the law,” Karena Lorek, OSHA's acting regional administrator in Kansas City, Missouri, said Tuesday in a statement. “When employers retaliate against workers who exercise their legal rights, other workers may suffer a chilling effect and fear exercising their rights to speak up. Problems don't get fixed, and workers get hurt. Employers that act in that manner deserve greater public scrutiny and a powerful response from OSHA.”

The criteria for inclusion on the Whistleblower-Severe Violator Enforcement Program log will include all significant whistleblower cases and cases deemed worthy of either litigation or merit findings from the U.S. Secretary of Labor in connection with egregious citations, a fatality or a rate-based incentive program for work-related injuries, according to the agency. Other criteria include a merit whistleblower case where the employer is already on the Severe Violator Enforcement Program log and a company with three or more merit whistleblower cases within the past three years.

Once an employer is determined to have met one of the criteria listed above, OSHA will place them on the Whistleblower-Severe Violator Enforcement Program log. After three years, a company may petition the regional administrator for a follow-up visit and removal from the program. At that time, OSHA will complete a comprehensive review of the company's policies and practices to determine if they have addressed and remedied the retaliation and its effects sufficiently.

Since OSHA implemented the severe violator program for health and safety enforcement cases in 2010, companies deemed as severe violators have made significant improvements, according to the agency.

“We hope that the (Whistleblower-Severe Violator Enforcement Program) pilot will be the catalyst that causes companies to change their behavior and instill a culture that restores employee confidence and reshapes the employer's perspective on whistleblowing,” Ms. Lorek said.

OSHA enforces the whistleblower provisions of 22 federal statutes.