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DISTRICT 9: OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program Rife with Corruption, Says Investigator

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An investigative report from NBC Bay Area writers Vicky Nguyen, Liz Wagner, and Felipe Escamilla discovered several systematic failures with the OSHA Whistleblower Protection Program that has resulted in botched or falsified several whistleblower cases.  Among their main sources is Darrell Whitman, an agency investigator, who now considers himself a whistleblower after calling out the agency. Whitman is a five-year veteran of OSHA in its District 9 office which covers California, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii, and Guam. 

Whitman summed up his position simply: “OSHA is hostile to whistleblowers.”

Get this straight. The government agency in charge of whistleblower protections is hostile to whistleblowers according to Whitman, who says it has gotten to the point where public safety is being endangered. “It is so incredibly absurd that we have placed our faith in these people,” he told NBC Bay Area, “who have no intention of following through to protect the public.”

Whitman provides examples of two cases he considered a “slam dunk” which had their results altered by superiors so that they could be easily dismissed.  One involves Aaron Stookey, who worked as a flight service specialist for defense contractor Lockheed Martin.  His job was to inform commercial, private, and military pilots about weather conditions.  He was certified to assist the pilots in Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana.  However, Stookey claims that his bosses forced him to take calls and assist pilots in areas he was not certified and ordered him not to reveal his location to the pilots he was assisting.  According to Stookey:

“They did not want the pilot to know that they received someone who was not certified in a flight plan area,” he said. “I would say this isn’t safe, this is really deceptive to the aviation community and I am not comfortable with that.”

When Stookey began refusing to follow orders due to safety concerns, he was fired.  He took his situation to the Region 9 office which dismissed the case.  Stookey continued his fight and eventually the national office of OSHA overturned the District 9 decision.  

Whitman other prime example is Mike Madry, a former quality assurance manager for Em Lab P&K, one of the largest indoor air quality testing companies in the U.S.  Madry came forward after he was fired for pointing out that devices to test asbestos levels in schools and hospitals were being misused:

“The compromised testing process could put the whole nation at risk,” Madry said. “I asked repeatedly how these tests were able to be done in such a short period of time and I never got a clear answer from management.”

Whitman acted as investigator on both of these cases and determined that both men should be rehired by their former companies and receive back pay.  Whitman’s superiors dismissed the cases. Whitman was so upset with this action that he petitioned the national office to review Madry’s case.  OSHA eventually reversed the District 9 decision.  

“When you simply dismiss a case because you don’t like it or don’t want to stand up to business,” Whitman said, “you are basically sending a message to other whistleblowers, don’t file a complaint because we’re not going to take it seriously.”

Whitman says that many of the decisions being made by the District 9 OSHA are intended to meet quotas.  He argues that people’s safety and legal rights are being trampled so that his superiors can “put up numbers.”  NBC Bay Area spoke with six separate whistleblowers who backed up Whitman’s claims.  

A fairly recent audit of the agency showed similar findings.  From the investigative report:

A 2010 audit conducted by the Office of Inspector General in the Department of Labor found that OSHA “did not always ensure that complainants received appropriate investigations.” Other internal reviews and reports have criticized OSHA for its low merit rate and inattention to longstanding program weaknesses.

Whitman said that he now considers himself a whistleblower and fully expects to be fired from his position when the NBC Bay Area report is released.  He has taken his complaints all the way to the office of the Labor Secretary.  While some reforms have been made in the past few years, Whitman argues that they are not enough and are not being followed.  

As for how OSHA responds to whistleblowers within its whistleblower program, Whitman said that retaliation is likely and severe.

“The message has gotten out to a lot of people. You either quit your job or keep your mouth shut because if a company doesn’t fire you or blacklist you, OSHA will destroy your life,” Whitman said. “As a consequence there are a lot of things that aren’t being reported. And that’s the scarier part.”

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