By James L. Curtis and Craig B. Simonsen

In a recent U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO) whistleblower protection program report, the GAO recommends that the Secretaries of Labor and Transportation evaluate their current and in-process memoranda of agreements (MOAs) to ensure that the MOAs incorporate key practices for collaboration. “Opportunities Exist for OSHA and DOT to Strengthen Collaborative Mechanisms,” GAO-14-286 (March 19, 2014).

In 2012 the GAO had concluded that collaboration “is critical when meaningful results that the federal government seeks to achieve require the coordinated efforts of more than one federal agency.” OSHA is responsible to investigate whistleblower claims filed by transportation employees who believe their employers have retaliated against them for reporting unlawful practices. The Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) required OSHA to establish protections for auto industry employees, and required GAO to review OSHA’s efforts and transportation-related whistleblower claims.

As a result, GAO examined the steps OSHA has taken to include auto industry employees in its whistleblower program, and the extent to which OSHA collaborated with DOT components to address potential safety violations.  GAO also reviewed the number of transportation-related whistleblower claims in the last six years, and stakeholder-identified factors that may have affected those numbers. The Report compared agency documents against key practices for collaboration, and conducted interviews of federal agency officials and stakeholders representing transportation modes under the covered statutes to identify factors that may have affected the number of whistleblower claims reported by OSHA.

According to the Report, OSHA documents its collaboration with the DOT’s component agencies on whistleblower protections by developing MOAs. Currently “MOAs cover aviation and rail employees; the agencies are considering developing MOAs to cover other transportation sectors such as commercial motor-carrier employees.” The Report noted that the agencies have an opportunity to “strengthen current and future MOAs by clearly delineating roles and responsibilities, and determining how the agencies’ efforts will be monitored and evaluated.” As an example, GAO noted that the current MOAs do not clearly define agency roles and responsibilities as to developing training on whistleblower issues, and regional coordination.

As employers in the commercial motor-carrier industry appear to be the current focus of the agencies under the federal government’s whistleblower protection program, it may be wise for employers in that industry to review this report, and to get involved as stakeholders in the development process.