During the 1990s, I was honored to represent the first two (2) environmental whistleblowers at the NASA Johnson Space Center in their U.S. Department of Labor whistleblower actions.
For insights into "root cause analysis" or "lessons learned," here is my February 20, 2003 St. Augustine Record column about NASA's two (2) fatal Space Shuttle disasters, made possible by NASA's hostile working environment toward protected activity and its lack of a safety culture.
From St. Augustine Record:
NASA's Preventable Disasters: Whistleblower Retaliation Caused Them All (St. Augustine Record column by Ed Slavin, 2003)
Letter: Shuttle whistle-blower retaliation is root cause
Edward A. Slavin Jr.
Published Thursday, February 20, 2003
Editor: America's second space shuttle disaster could have been prevented if "whistle blowers" were heeded and protected from retaliation by managers.
Now NASA has appointed yet another panel to investigate itself. As the song asks, "When will they ever learn?"
NASA ignored warnings about tile failure for decades because "NASA family" and contractor employees fear to speak out about safety, fearing retaliation. The New York Times reports that NASA fired safety advisory panel members and consultants criticizing budget cuts as unsafe. The Presidential Challenger Commission found NASA's culture chilled free speech rights the same as cold temperatures chilled the O-rings. NASA ignored numerous disaster warnings and cut safety. At the Johnson Space Center, many engineers did not watch space shuttle launches since Challenger, because they feared it could happen again. The Columbia 7 deaths are sadly rooted in a dysfunctional management culture that retaliates against whistle blowers and helped cause the Challenger disaster. NASA exacts an oath of "omerta" on raising concerns.
Secretive, authoritarian managers destroy the careers of too many ethical employees like Morton Thiokol engineer Roger Boisjoly and colleagues, who warned against the O-ring problem that caused the Challenger to blow up on launch in 1986.
Johnson Space Center banned one shuttle whistle blower from Johnson Space Center property, issuing a gag order against speaking to NASA employees about concerns about toxic chemical residues in shuttle cabin air. Rather than investigating risks to shuttle astronauts from chemicals and ill-sterilized medical hardware, the Johnson Space Center medical "investigation" concentrated on "Ancestry of Quotes," identifying the source of the inspector general complaint through text analysis. NASA Administrator Dan Goldin did nothing to remedy NASA's hostile working environment. The Johnson Space Center director was later promoted to be assistant secretary of energy in charge of Department of Energy's environmental cleanup.
NASA fought Department of Labor environmental whistle-blower jurisdiction. Chilling effects continued amid its smokescreen of "hardball" delay tactics. Another NASA manager was later suspended without pay for 15 days in another whistle-blower case, but too many retaliatory managers who destroy whistle blowers' careers get promoted.
Current laws do not adequately protect whistle blowers. In 1993, the Department of Labor inspector general found delays were ordered by several secretaries of labor. Last year the third circuit federal appeals court found it "completely inexplicable" why the Department of Labor took 13 years to adjudicate one simple nuclear whistle-blower case, while the law allows 90 days.
Citing the Challenger disaster, in February 1990 the American Bar Association recommended protecting all corporate, federal, state and local government whistle blowers from discrimination, with a federal administrative remedy. In our complex technological society, too many of us are required to agree with the boss or be fired. Whistle-blower laws remain a patchwork with loopholes, though a 2002 law is a positive step to protect some corporate whistle blowers. All must be protected from workplace retaliation and guaranteed freedom of conscience.
Let's free the "mind slaves," ending what Lincoln might have called "Idolatry that practices human sacrifice."