The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) has named a former chairman of the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (“MSPB”), as the new director of OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program.  On November 20, officials of OSHA announced that Beth Siavet will lead the agency’s whistleblower protection efforts.

OSHA enforces the whistleblower provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 and 21 other statutes protecting employees who report alleged violations of various workplace regulations.  Rights afforded by these whistleblower acts include, but are not limited to, worker participation in safety and health activities, reporting a work related injury, illness or fatality, or reporting a violation of the statutes.

Beth Siavet was with the MSPB as vice chairman, chairman, and member from 1995 to 2003.  The Merit Systems Protection Board is an independent agency that oversees the personnel activities of federal government employees. Siavet replaces the program’s former director, Sandra Dillon, who retired in August.  OSHA has recently sought to expand the reach of its Whistleblower Protection Program and to make it a greater priority to the agency.  Earlier this year, the program was restructured and now reports directly to OSHA’s head.

OSHA’s announcement that Siavet was named director of the whistleblower program comes as lawmakers have moved to expand protections for employees who blow the whistle on government fraud.  Days before, the U.S. Senate approved changes to legislation aimed at strengthening whistleblower legislation first passed in 1989.   The Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012 was unanimously passed by the U.S. House of Representatives a little more than a month ago, and now goes to the President for signature.  The bill takes aim at court decisions that limited protections for whistleblowers to cover situations where the whistleblower was the first to report wrongdoing and in which the whistleblowing was connected to the worker’s job duties.  The Act provides additional protections to whistleblowers reporting waste, fraud, and abuse at federal agencies.

Employers are well advised to keep an eye on OSHA’s whistleblower developments and to take steps to avoid unnecessary retaliation claims. First and foremost, employers should be vigilant in assessing their workplace for compliance with workplace safety and health standards.  Employers should already have anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies in place. In addition, employers should have and disseminate to every employee a written internal procedure setting forth how employees can bring complaints to their employer outside the discrimination and harassment realm.  These policies should contain provisions to encourage employees to come forward with complaints about health and safety and a non-retaliation statement.