WASHINGTON, June 29 (Reuters) – The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) has ordered the Department of Agriculture to investigate worker complaints about poor management and safety hazards at its flagship Maryland research facility, according to a letter seen by Reuters.
Reuters exclusively reported in May that workers at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center (BARC), USDA’s largest research facility, had filed a complaint with the OSC alleging that unsafe conditions, including broken ventilation equipment and fire alarms, were impeding their research and exposing them to risks.
The agency closed a major research building at the facility for repairs shortly after the Reuters story was published.
After reviewing the worker complaints, the OSC, which protects federal whistleblowers, found a “substantial likelihood of wrongdoing” at BARC and has referred the matter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack for an investigation, according to a letter sent from OSC to the workers on Thursday and seen by Reuters.
“USDA takes the health and safety of our employees very seriously,” said an agency spokesperson. “We will immediately investigate these allegations.”
The agency has 60 days to conduct the investigation and submit a report to the OSC, the letter says. Federal law empowers the OSC to require agency investigations.
After the report is submitted, the OSC will send it and other materials to the President and congressional oversight committees, according to a process outlined on the OSC website.
“Our union and its members at USDA welcome this news and action from the Office of Special Counsel,” said Ward Morrow, assistant general counsel at the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents BARC workers. “Employee safety, and the safety of critical research, are at stake.”
Reporting by Leah Douglas
Editing by Mark Potter
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