The U.S. Office of Special Counsel has ordered the Secretary of Agriculture to investigate allegations of unsafe working conditions that may have caused the loss of data and improper handling of scientific equipment, research and data.
Three employees of the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center (BARC) near Washington, D.C., in May filed a complaint alleging unsafe working conditions, including that basic safety systems such as fire alarms and fire hoods, and facilities such as bathrooms, were not functioning properly.
According to Reuters, which first reported details of the complaint, a flood on Christmas Day 2022 sent water, ceiling tiles and drywall cascading into offices, laboratories and storage rooms, wrecking equipment, records and data at the research facility.
In a letter to the American Federation of Government Employees, the OSC, which is investigating the complaint, said it had ordered Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to launch a probe and report back within 60 days. USDA has since announced that it will shut down the building to make repairs.
OSC has the power to order a federal agency secretary to conduct an investigation when it has established “substantial likelihood” of wrongdoing based on information provided to the investigative agency.
In a June 29 letter to the American Federation of Government Employees, the OSC said: “Specifically, you alleged that BARC leadership has failed to adequately maintain many of the facility buildings and structures, resulting in an unsafe and deteriorating workplace environment for employees; BARC facilities employees do not have the required tools and equipment for adequate maintenance and repair of the buildings and structures; and the unsafe and deteriorating conditions have resulted in the loss and improper handling of scientific equipment, research, and data.”
The counsel added: “After reviewing the information you provided, we have requested that the Secretary of Agriculture conduct an investigation into these allegations and report back to OSC pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 1213(c). We have provided the Secretary 60 days to conduct the investigation and submit the report to OSC.”
Commenting on the OSC’s latest findings, AFGE Assistant General Counsel Ward Morrow, who represents the employees in their complaints, said: “OSC does not refer whistleblower disclosures to agency heads for investigation unless it has found a substantial likelihood of wrongdoing. This is a validation to employees that their concerns have been heard, and that USDA will be required to conduct a full investigation into why the agency put the health and safety of its own employees in jeopardy.”
A USDA spokesperson said: “Our employees’ health and well-being is our top priority, and we remain committed to the ongoing effort to modernize our research facilities so employees have workspaces that can support the critical research they carry out.”
They added: “We will investigate these allegations while continuing our work to modernize this facility and address employees’ concerns.”