National News Release: USDL 99-120
Wednesday, April 28, 1999
Contact: David Saltz 202-219-8211
Worker Memorial Day 1999
LABOR SECRETARY HONORS ATLANTA RESCUE HEROES; ANNOUNCES NEW WHISTLEBLOWER LEGISLATION
Flanked by two workplace heroes --- a man involved in a dramatic April 12 helicopter rescue in Atlanta and a Tulsa, Okla., nurse who blew the whistle on unsafe working conditions -- Secretary of Labor Alexis M. Herman announced today that the Clinton Administration is pressing for new legislation to better protect American workers who report unsafe working conditions.
Vice President Al Gore traveled to Dubuque, Iowa, today to discuss workplace safety issues with union members. "On Workers' Memorial Day all Americans should pause to commemorate the deaths, injuries and illnesses suffered by working men and women on the job," he said. "Let's honor them by passing legislation which would give American workers the stronger protections they deserve when they blow the whistle on unsafe conditions at work. I urge Congress to support this step, which members of both parties have agreed is overdue."
Speaking at a ceremony in observance of Worker Memorial Day, Secretary Herman honored Ivers Sims, who was trapped on a tower crane above a raging fire while directing other workers to safety. "Mr. Sims and the three men who rescued him showed great courage," Herman said. "Because of their actions, no workers died when fire erupted at this Atlanta construction site.
"Unfortunately, there are many other American workers who lose their lives or become sick or injured on the job," she added. "Worker Memorial Day memorializes them. Adopting stronger whistleblower legislation can help reduce the hazards that cause injuries, illnesses and deaths."
Herman also recognized nurse Rosemary Cook for her courage as a whistleblower. Cook was fired in 1994 from her nursing home job after she complained about unsafe conditions to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Oklahoma State Department of Health. She fought back, and her actions were vindicated by a federal court decision that awarded Cook back pay and damages -- but the process took almost three years.
Joining Herman at the ceremony were Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, and Congressman Major Owens of New York.
The Secretary noted that providing stronger legal protection for those who blow the whistle on bad safety and health conditions has had bipartisan support over the years. Former Secretaries of Labor Ann McLaughlin, Elizabeth Dole and Robert B. Reich, the former Administrative Conference of the United States, the General Accounting Office, committees of the Congress, and the Department of Labor's Inspector General have all supported improvements in whistleblower protection in the past.
"Some workers have better protection than OSHA now provides," said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Charles N. Jeffress. "For example, the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982, which covers truckers and other transportation employees, includes more effective protection to whistleblowers, such as longer filing periods and firm deadlines for consideration of employee complaints. Coal miners also have a stronger anti-discrimination law."
The new Administration-supported legislation is called "The Hazard Reporting Protection Act." It would strengthen protections for American workers by:
Increasing the time for workers to file complaints of employer retaliation from 30 to 180 days.
Including reports of unsafe conditions, injuries and illnesses as protected activity.
Setting firm deadlines for the Department of Labor to complete its investigation of worker complaints of retaliation for reporting unsafe situations.
Allowing the department to provide for reinstatement, back pay and damages without requiring the employee to go to court.
Protecting workers who refuse to work in what they reasonably believe are seriously dangerous conditions.
Allowing workers, for the first time, to bring their case to an administrative law judge if the Department of Labor decides not to pursue the case.
Providing the Department of Labor and employees additional authority to seek relief in federal courts if employers fail to comply with the department's decision in whistleblower cases.
OSHA received 2,465 whistleblower complaints under Section 11( c )of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in the last fiscal year. Of these only 348 were settled with the employee receiving some remedy. A total of 865 cases were dismissed as lacking merit; 377 were not accepted because the employee failed to file a complaint within 30 days or was not engaged in an activity protected under the law; 39 were referred to other more appropriate agencies such as the Mine Safety and Health Administration or the National Labor Relations Board; 197 were withdrawn by the complainant without resolution following a closing conference; and 42 were referred to the Solicitor of Labor for recommended litigation in court.
OSHA currently has jurisdiction to protect whistleblowers under 11 federal statutes: The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970;Surface Transportation Assistance Act; Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act;International Safe Container Act; Energy Reorganization Act;Clean Air Act; Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act; Federal Water Pollution Control Act;Safe Drinking Water Act; Solid Waste Disposal Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act .
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U.S. Labor Department news releases are accessible on the Internet at: http://www.dol.gov. The information in this news release will be made available to sensory impaired individuals upon request. Voice phone: 202-219-7316.