After a long four-year legal battle against his former employer, a whistleblower has finally received justice. Bob Whitmore, a former Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) employee, alleged he was terminated from his position within the government agency after publicly criticizing its response to companies who under report workplace injuries. As a result of this settlement, Whitmore will receive an $820,000 whistleblower reward.
About the Case
For almost 25 years, Whitmore was the top official overseeing OSHA recordkeeping requirements. He had repeatedly spoken with both OSHA supervisors and members of the media about the agency’s failure and unwillingness to address certain companies who grossly under-report workplace illness and injury. In fact, Whitmore even testified at a 2008 Congressional hearing about companies that fail to report workplace injuries.
Whitmore was placed on administrative leave during 2007 and remained on leave for more than two years. Finally, after the media began to cover the story of his extended suspension, Whitmore was terminated in 2009.
He alleged the firing stemmed from his interview with Charlotte Observer reporters who were looking into dangerous workplace conditions and injuries within the nation’s poultry industry. After his termination, Whitmore opted to consult with a whistleblower attorney and file an official complaint against OSHA under the Whistleblower Protection Act.
Under the terms of the settlement, Whitmore will not to be allowed to seek another job within the Labor Department for 15 years. Despite this stipulation, Whitmore said that he hopes his actions will encourage other whistleblowers to come forward and speak out against both fraud and workplace retaliation.
“Hopefully it will give people who are contemplating this (the) courage to go forward and do the right thing,” said Whitmore.
Workplace Retaliation Against Whistleblowers
Whitmore’s troubles with OSHA began after the agency publicly announced that declining workplace injury rates proved that its campaign was a success. As the top official in OSHA’s recordkeeping department, Whitmore knew that the agency was twisting both the facts and the circumstances to make it look better in the public eye.
In several interviews and a later congressional hearing, Whitmore charged that OSHA had previously allowed certain employers to under report workplace injuries. He also alleged that the agency failed to punish these companies, who were making false and fraudulent claims concerning the number of workplace injuries suffered each year. Whitmore also stated that OSHA needed to take a more aggressive approach, punishing any company found to be under-reporting dangerous workplace injuries.
Whitmore’s comments were included in a 2008 Charlotte Observer multi-part series, detailing dangerous workplace conditions within the poultry industry and the dangers posed to the workers. The series also documented how one North Carolina poultry plant went to great lengths to hide its workplace injuries. As a result of his open criticism and the growing public support, Whitmore alleged that OSHA set out to silence him.
A Whistleblower Vindicated
The recent whistleblower settlement reward comes after a 2012 ruling in the United States Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge Jimmie Reyna found that Whitmore had been the victim of workplace retaliation and even called him “a bona-fide whistleblower.”
Judge Reyna’s decision vacated and earlier ruling which found that OSHA had grounds to terminate Whitmore. According to official court documentation, Judge Reyna found that the board had either ignored or chosen to overlook vital evidence to support that Whitmore was terminated due to sheer whistleblower retaliation.
Judge Reyna found evidence that OSHA managers had:
- Developed a plot “to get” Whitmore for publically embarrassing OSHA
- Concocted a bogus investigation, which was later used to justify his termination
- Claimed to fire Whitmore after getting into a loud argument with another co-worker, but took no action against Whitmore’s co-worker for similar actions
Official Reaction to the Decision
Carolyn Lerner is head of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which is the agency in charge of protecting government workers who expose acts of fraud and wrongdoing. Lerner said she believes the appeals court’s decision on Whitmore’s case “significantly helped” all federal employees who are facing workplace retaliation for whistleblowing activities.
“It made clear that the government faces a steep legal burden when trying to defend such retaliatory actions and it also ensured the whistleblowers have a fair opportunity to rebut the government’s defense,” Lerner said.