OSHA Strengthens Whistleblower Investigation Manual

Employees who see violations in their workplace but are scared to bring them up because they fear for their jobs now have more broad access to The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s whistleblower department.

OSHA made clarifications to its Whistleblower Investigation Manual in September that open up avenues of access. Complainants now can file concerns in any language orally, in writing or on OSHA’s website.

A new requirement in the updated manual instructs investigators to make every effort to interview the whistleblower.

In the past 18 months, at least two organizations contacted government officials in writing – including Assistant Secretary of Labor David Michaels and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius – complaining that whistleblowers were not interviewed by OSHA investigators in their own case.

The new requirement could fix that issue. The investigator’s supervisor will now have to approve the attempts made to interview the complainant, according to OSHA’s website.

The new manual clarifies investigation protocol including how to conduct and record interviews with witnesses. It also expands guidance on how to deal with uncooperative witnesses. Increased training of investigators is a big part of the revised manual.

In September, OSHA held a whistleblower investigator conference and investigators now will take a two-week training course including webinars on food safety laws and amendments to the Sarbanes Oxley Act.

Some of the more sweeping changes in OSHA’s whistleblower investigation manual are internal. The Office of the Whistleblower Protection Program now will report directly to the Assistant Secretary of the Department of Labor. Previously, the Directorate of Enforcement Programs oversaw OWPP.

“The prospective of this restructure is to increase consistency, timely investigations, and better customer service,” according to the website.

OSHA recently hired about 25 new investigators. The administration has a new line item in the FY 2012 budget for the whistleblower program with a requested $6 million increase to fund 45 more investigators.

OSHA plans to significantly increase its visibility in the areas where the group gets the most complaints to provide education and compliance help, according to the website. To make sure complaints are handled in a reasonable timeframe, OSHA also modified and strengthened the audit program. The data collection program also was modified. The administration knocked out a backlog of 150 cases, according to its website. A new directive pushes for consistent and quick appeals too.

A qualified business law and employment attorney can help your company draft policies that will comply with OSHA regulations. Should an internal matter arise, a qualified lawyer can advise on how to conduct investigations and how to handle employees so that a company adheres to the laws.

Seth Wilburn writes for the Gomez Law Group, a Dallas employment lawyer and Dallas business lawyer. To learn more, visit Gomezlawyers.com.