OSHA Takes Action Against North Dakota DEQ for Whistleblower Retaliation

OSHA Takes Action Against North Dakota DEQ for Whistleblower Retaliation

Agency faces consequences for penalizing an employee reporting water safety concerns.

The North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ)—responsible for protecting the state's air and water resources—is now under scrutiny for whistleblower retaliation.

In a release dated August 23, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced the results of an OSHA investigation into the matter. The DEQ reportedly wrongfully penalized an environmental scientist who brought forward concerns about the public water system, both to DEQ management and later the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

OSHA enforces the whistleblower provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act, among other statutes that protect employees who expose various workplace infringements. Now the agency’s inquiry revealed that the employee—a seven-year veteran of the DEQ—highlighted these safety issues over the course of six months.

The employee’s concerns included reporting inaccuracies, data collection flaws and serious sanitary breaches later downgraded to minor issues. After the scientist contacted the EPA, the DEQ requested the worker cease communication with the EPA and issued a written reprimand on July 1, 2022. Now OSHA is ordering this reprimand is removed from the employee’s file.

“Employees have the right to report potential violations related to safe drinking water, and it is illegal for employers to retaliate against those who do,” OSHA Regional Administrator Jennifer S. Rous in Denver said in a statement. “Our investigation and actions on the environmental scientist’s behalf reflect the U.S. Department of Labor’s determination to make sure workers’ rights are protected.”

The DEQ and the employee have a 30-day window, from receiving the agency's order, to lodge objections or seek a hearing with the department’s Office of Administrative Law Judges.

About the Author

Robert Yaniz Jr. is the Content Editor of Occupational Health & Safety.

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