Washington, DC- Today, U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), Chair of the Senate HELP Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety, held a hearing on protections for whistleblowers in the private sector. Thousands of workers encounter employer retaliation each year for raising safety concerns or reporting injuries, but the Occupational Safety and Health Act’s whistleblower provisions are too weak to provide adequate protections for these workers. As a result, known safety and health issues go unreported because workers fear losing their jobs or being otherwise harassed if they speak up.
“Every worker deserves to be confident that while doing their jobs, their employers are doing everything they can to maintain a safe workplace,” said Senator Casey. “Far too many workers are still being injured while trying to do their jobs. I am committed to working with employers and workers to do everything possible to make the workplace safer, work with employers who are doing the right thing, and to target bad actors.”
The following experts attended as hearing witnesses:
- Dr. David Michaels, Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health, U.S. Department of Labor
- Emily Spieler, Professor of Law Northeastern University School of Law and Chair Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee
- Tom Devine, Legal Director for Government Accountability Project
- Ross Baize, Safety Committeeman for UAW at Alternate Building BB/HH Caterpillar
- Gregory Keating, Co-Chair, Whistleblowing and Retaliation Practice Group, Littler Mendelson P.C.
Senator Casey’s opening statement is below:
Opening Statement for Senator Robert P. Casey Jr.
EWS Subcommittee Hearing – Workers’ Memorial Day: Are Existing Private Sector Whistleblower Protections Adequate To Ensure Safe Workplaces?
Tuesday, April 29, 2014
Yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of Workers’ Memorial Day, which is observed every year on April 28th. It is a day to honor those workers who have died, been disabled, injured or made sick by their work. It is also a day to acknowledge the suffering experienced by families and communities, and to recommit ourselves to the fight for safe and healthy workplace for all workers. And it is the day the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was established in 1971.
Too many people each year mark this day by remembering loved ones lost in a workplace tragedy. And to them, we offer our sincerest condolences, we honor the memory of their loved ones, and we take the opportunity to discuss ways to reduce future workplace tragedies – so that fewer families have to face the pain of losing a loved one in often preventable workplace incidents.
In 2012 alone (the most recent year for BLS numbers)
- 4,383 workers were killed on the job, including 163 workers in my home state of Pennsylvania;
- nearly 3 million workers were injured;
- an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 workers died from occupational diseases
That’s about 150 worker deaths each day. OSHA does not have nearly enough inspectors for the approximately 132 million workers nation-wide. In fact, OSHA only has 1 inspector for about every 69,000 workers at over 9 million worksites across the country. Workers see first-hand the hazards on the job and in their workplaces, and because OSHA cannot be everywhere, workers are an important resource in addressing the hazards in their workplaces. But in order for workers to properly identify and report workplace hazards, they must first have confidence that they will not lose their jobs or face other types of retaliation for doing so.
Previous congressional hearings focused on the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, where 29 workers died, and the Deep-water Horizon explosion, where 11 perished -- both in 2010. In these instances, surviving workers and family members who lost loved ones recounted known hazards, but workers felt threatened or pressured to keep working, fearing they may lose their job if they spoke up. These incidents highlight the importance of whistleblower protections – maybe these tragedies could have been avoided if safety violations and concerns that were not reported had been brought to light.
OSHA has taken action to address administrative issues with its Whistleblower Protections Program, identified in reports by GAO and the Department of Labor Inspector General, and made great progress in improving how the Program functions. Despite these efforts, the gaps in OSHA’s whistleblower protection statutes, specifically section 11(c) of the OSH Act, which accounts for over half of OSHA’s whistleblower caseload, still leave me with concerns about workers’ ability to freely identify hazards to their employers or authorities without fear of retaliation.
With fewer inspectors and many more workers to protect today than in past decades, it is imperative that those in the best position to identify hazards – workers – have adequate whistleblower protections.
I called this hearing today so that we can:
- Review the current whistleblower protections in the OSH Act (Section 11(c)) and compare them to more recently updated whistleblower statutes;
- Consider whether the current whistleblower protections are sufficiently adequate to encourage workers to report safety and ethical concerns so as to avoid future workplace disasters like we saw in 2010 at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia and the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico.
- And lastly evaluate what updates, if any, are needed to make workers more comfortable in identifying safety hazards or violations and ultimately make the workplace safer for all American workers.
I look forward to the testimony and ensuing discussion from our two witness panels.