Lionized by Hollywood and protected by federal law, the lone employee who stands up to a large bureaucracy has become a well-established part of American culture. In 2002, Time magazine put three whistle-blowers on its cover, lauding them as "persons of the year."Which brings us back to the happier story of Adam Finkel and his crusade to get OSHA to test its inspectors for health effects of exposure beryllium during inspections of contaminated workplaces.
But the hard truth is that blowing the whistle is a long, tough slog in which people sacrifice careers, friends, and job security to do what they believe is right. And in a small corner of that world - environmental whistle-blowing - such sacrifices appear particularly extreme. Ironically, where complaint dismissals and court rulings have eroded whistle- blower protection, their numbers have increased. Yet where legal protections have grown, the number of whistle-blowers has stayed flat or even fallen.
Finkel, as you will remember, was removed from his job as Regional Administrator in Denver because he revealed that OSHA had abandoned its plan to screen its inspectors. OSHA eventually agreed to the tests and earlier this week, Chicago Tribune reporter Sam Roe reported that OSHA has found that three of its employees have been affected by exposure to the deadly metal.
Finkel's case had a happier resolution than that of many whistleblowers. OSHA agreed to do the testing and reached a settlement with Finkel who is currently teaching at Princeton University. Others have not been so lucky, according to the Monitor:
Despite the passage of the Whistle-blower Protection Act for federal employees in 1989, those who have filed complaints under the act face a backlog of unsettled cases and a minuscule success rate. Only 1 percent of such cases since 2001 was referred to agency heads for investigation. Of the last 95 such cases that reached the federal circuit court of appeals, only one whistle-blower won.And things are no better in the public sector than in the private sector, according to Finkel in an interview with Jim Nash of Occupational Hazards:
"When people come to us, we have to be candid," says Greg Watchman, executive director of the Government Accountability Project, a Washington advocacy group that counsels would-be whistle-blowers in the federal government. "Under current laws protecting federal whistle-blowers, they don't stand a chance."
Yet they keep on trying - and not just on environmental issues. During the first four years of the Bush administration, the backlog at the Office of Special Counsel, set up by Congress to handle whistle-blower disclosures by federal workers, saw its backlog grow from 287 to 690. In addition, the OSC reports 572 new disclosures last year, the highest in four years.
The number of would-be environmental whistle-blowers contacting the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility has also grown. PEER, which helps environmental whistle-blowers at all levels of government, has seen a two-thirds increase in the past four years.
One key factor in the boom is Bush administration environmental policies that have driven not only lower-level scientists but also more senior government managers to step forward in protest, says Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER.
During his years as a regional administrator, Finkel said he saw dozens of cases of private employers retaliating against workers who complained about health and safety issues.Ironically, OSHA is the agency responsible for handling whistleblower cases under most federal laws -- even those brought under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act which was recently passed in the wake of the Enron scandal:
"OSHA treated me as badly as any private sector employer I've ever seen," Finkel contended. "So how can OSHA be trusted to protect private sector people who complain about health and safety problems?"
The number of whistle-blower complaints filed with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has not risen dramatically since 2002, when Sarbanes-Oxley was passed. OSHA, which administers whistle-blower provisions under Sarbanes-Oxley and numerous other federal statutes, saw its total cases peak at 2,060 in fiscal 2003. But that total declined to 1,922 last fiscal year - lower than the annual totals in two years of the Clinton administration. Its environmental caseload has actually fallen 14 percent during the first four years of the Bush administration compared with the last four years under Clinton.Finkel note other troubling issues raised by OSHA's failure to effectivelly address hazardous to its own employees:
Because of the small numbers involved in the environmental arena - the annual peak was 85 cases in fiscal 2000 - such comparisons are not statistically significant, an OSHA official says. Still, some see a problem.
The decline "could reflect a skepticism on the part of workers that the current administration will give them a fair hearing," Mr. Watchman says.
"If we can't protect the people closest to us," he asked, "what does that say about how well we are protecting the other 100 million workers we are supposed to be protecting?"If this administration continues along its course of appointing officials to represent the interests of the industries they come from rather than the laws they're hired to enforce, if they continue to ignore worker, consumer and environmental protections and undermine the intent of the laws passed over the past 35 years, the welfare of the citizens of this country will increasingly depend on the courage of whistleblowers in the private and public sectors.
If the 1.5 percent rate [three postive workers out of 200 tested] holds up, Finkel said as many as 45 current or former inspectors may already be sensitized to beryllium, since he estimates there have been roughly 3,000 federal and state plan inspectors in the history of the agency.
Why should the Bush administration and Republican Congress take the public heat for repealing the laws on the books if they can just ignore them without paying any price? If whistleblowers feel they can't speak out about crimes perpetrated behind the scenes without endangering their careers and the welfare of their families, the bad guys will continue to get away with undermining our collective rights to safe workplaces and communities, a clean environment, and consumer products and food that aren't going to kill us.
Let's not let that happen. We need to encourage and support whistleblowers by pressuring legislators to protect them, pushing the media to cover their stories and supporting organizations like the Government Accountability Project and PEER.