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DOL to pay top OSHA official $820,000 for retaliatory termination

In 2009, a number of groups were investigating what really goes on in poultry processing plants, including a couple of reporters for the Charlotte Observer. Part of the reporters' investigation related to workplace injuries in the poultry industry, so they contacted Bob Whitmore, then head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's record keeping section. In an interview, he revealed that injuries to workers were routinely underreported in the industry and criticized OSHA for allowing that to happen.

He was fired. After 37 years at OSHA, Whitmore says, he was fired in retaliation for reporting the illegal behavior. So, he filed a grievance with the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board claiming he was terminated in violation of the federal Whistleblower Protection Act.

More than four years of litigation ensued, including a ruling last year but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit that Whitmore was a bona fide whistleblower deserving the full protection of the Whistleblower Protection Act.

This week, the U.S. Department of Labor, which oversees OSHA, announced that it has agreed to pay Whitmore $820,000 -- the largest known retaliatory discharge settlement by federal agency.

“I think Bob paid a very big price for people injured in the workplace,” said his attorney. “The government paid a bigger price with a landmark settlement.” He added, “there are people who are not going to get killed or injured in the workplace because of Bob Whitmore.”

The settlement was approved by the Merit Systems Protection Board this week. Strangely, part of the settlement requires the 66-year-old Whitmore not to seek any employment with the Department of Labor for 15 years.

“I regret that I’m not going to get the opportunity to finish what I set out to do,” Whitmore said of the settlement. “That will bug me.”

Worker advocates hope the sheer size of the settlement will send an urgent message to other employers -- both government and private-sector -- about how to respond to whistleblowing activity. The curious may still wonder: if the Labor Department is meant to respect and even value whistleblowers, why did they want to keep Whitmore from ever working there again?

Source: The Charlotte Observer, "Feds to pay OSHA whistleblower $820,000 settlement," Ames Alexander, June 5, 2013

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