aced with an employer who ignores safety concerns or retaliates against those who raise them can drive a worker to become a whistleblower and report his company to the government. But becoming a whistleblower isn’t an easy road—and doesn’t guarantee any safety improvements to the workplace.
No one knew this better than Charles Varnadore, who reported safety issues at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee in the 1990s. Varnadore died on March 7, but his death went unreported until recently.
As reported in the New York Times, Varnadore worked as a technician at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a federal nuclear research center.
When Varnadore returned to work after surgery for colon cancer, he noticed and reported various safety issues, including:
Martin Marietta, the contractor that ran the lab, didn’t respond favourably to his complaints and instead retaliated. For example:
Varnadore fought back by going public with the questionable safety practices at the lab and the retaliation he was subjected to as a result.
Martin Marietta denied permitting any safety or environmental irregularities. For example, although it didn’t deny the existence of radiation, mercury and other chemicals in Varnadore’s offices, it said they weren’t present in quantities large enough to be hazardous.
Varnadore’s complaints drew national attention, including that of the federal government. In 1992, the Energy Department confirmed 16 of the 26 safety violations identified by Varnadore and ordered Martin Marietta to fix them.
In Nov. 1991, Varnadore filed the first of several whistleblower complaints with the Labor Department. In Feb. 1992, the department ruled in his favor and was upheld by an administrative judge in June 1993.
But the labor secretary, Robert B. Reich, dismissed some of Varnadore’s charges. And a panel appointed by Reich found that although there had been retaliation against Varnadore, it wasn’t pervasive. So the panel threw out the rest of the claims and a federal appeals court supported these dismissals.
Although Varnadore officially lost his case, it did lead to reforms in the Energy Department and fostered a new willingness among nuclear workers to report abuses. Varnadore’s complaints also led to stronger laws and practices governing workers who blow the whistle on their employers.
Rest in peace, Charles Varnadore.
To learn more about whistleblower protection laws, visit the Whistleblowers Compliance Center.