Whistleblower legislation might have prevented listeriosis outbreak, say activists

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Employees can prevent disasters by providing early warning. In Canada, we have had no lack of tragedies, but we don't seem to have learned this lesson.

By Michele Brill-Edwards, Brian McAdam and David Hutton
Hill Times: October 6th, 2008

As the listeriosis outbreak continues to claim lives, many people are asking whether this tragedy could have been prevented by proper regulatory oversight of the industry. But there is another aspect that has not been discussed: the role of whistleblower protection laws.

Our contention is that, regardless of other failures in the food safety system, this tragedy might have been averted by warnings from people working within the system – if only we had effective laws to protect truth-tellers. This is not a fanciful notion, but one that is supported by studies of numerous previous disasters.

For example, when the Challenger Shuttle exploded in 1986, Congress discovered that engineers had desperately tried to prevent the launch, warning that the booster rocket seals were likely to malfunction in the cool temperatures forecast for that morning. When the P&O car ferry Herald Free Enterprise sank in 1987 with the loss of 193 lives, the subsequent inquiry revealed that numerous employees had warned management that ferries often sailed with bow doors accidentally left open, because there was no warning light on the bridge to alert the captain.

Like many other tragedies, these were predicted but not prevented. Each could have averted had employees been able to raise their concerns effectively beforehand. This realization – that employees can prevent disasters by providing early warning – led to strong whistleblower protection laws in both the UK and the USA. In Canada, we have had no lack of tragedies, yet we do not seem to have learned this lesson.

The Tainted Blood Scandal, the worst public health disaster in Canadian history, caused thousands of deaths from contaminated blood products issued by the Red Cross. Many senior people knew exactly what was going on, yet during this period the Red Cross fired and/or forced out 11 of its 17 medical directors across Canada – the very people who were questioning inadequate efforts to warn and protect the public.

At Walkerton, seven people died and more than 2,300 became ill after mandatory reporting of water contamination test results was discontinued. Politicians had ignored repeated warnings from public health officials that this practice was dangerous – and the public was kept in the dark until it was too late.

In our latest tragedy – the current listeriosis outbreak – it seems that at least three opportunities to prevent this disaster may have been lost.

First, we could have learned about CFIA management’s secret plan to reduce food safety standards – before these highly controversial measures were even approved. Second, we could have learned about the many concerns expressed by CFIA inspectors in the field even before the implementation of this bad policy decision. Third, we could have learned about any concerns held by the thousands of company employees working on the food production lines – who are the first to know when management is cutting corners or taking risks.

But none of this happened and we were kept in the dark because Canadian employees are fearful of raising concerns with their own senior management, and are terrified of going public – with very good reason.

Witness the fate of Luc Pomerleau, the union steward who stumbled upon CFIA’s secret plans, showed these to some union colleagues – and was instantly fired.

Or consider the whistleblower regime created by the Accountability Act, which according to Stephen Harper provides ‘ironclad protection’ for public servants. The new Public Service Integrity Commissioner is supposedly the whistleblowers’ protector. Yet in her first year of operation, with a staff of 21 and a budget of $6.5 million, she has found not a single instance of wrongdoing in the entire Federal Public Service – and not a single case of reprisal against a whistleblower.

And how about the food company employees who, unlike the CFIA inspectors, see everything that goes on? We are unlikely to hear a peep from any of them, because the Accountability Act has no provisions whatsoever to protect private sector whistleblowers.

No wonder most Canadians dare not question their bosses or try to warn the public, even when they suspect that lives could be at risk. It’s time for our politicians to deliver on their past election promises and to get serious about protecting the brave souls who risk all to reveal the truth. The lives saved may be yours or your loved ones.

Dr. Michele Brill-Edwards, former Health Canada whistle-blower
Brian McAdam, former Foreign Affairs whistle-blower
David Hutton, Executive Director, FAIR (Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform)

Copyright Hill Times 2008