After state OSHA’s top officer departs, questions linger about agency

Nevada Department of Occupational Safety and Health Administration Chief Administrator Jess Lankford quietly left his position recently. It was a leadership role he’d held for seven years.

Whether Lankford’s departure was associated with the fallout from the botched handling of the whistleblower action of Helen Armstrong remains uncertain. The blowout from Armstrong’s complaint to OSHA over alleged safety conditions at a Las Vegas medical practice where she worked generated a federal lawsuit that raised troubling questions about the competence of the state office and the ethics of some of its officials.

Details about Lankford’s departure remain sketchy. A request for more information brought a polite and expected response from Department of Business and Industry (DBI) spokesperson Teri Williams, who confirmed only that Lankford was no longer employed at the Division of Industrial Relations and that there’s no plan to name an interim person to the position.

In a state which has crafted an agreement with the federal government to be responsible for managing its own workplace safety programs and investigating complaints in the field, Lankford performed an important duty. Nevada OSHA is both good cop and bad cop when it comes to scrutinizing worker safety, business compliance, and providing for whistleblower protection. That’s a lot of responsibility and potential pressure in a division nestled in the middle of the pro-business DBI.

Lankford appeared up to the task. When appointed chief administrator in August 2014, he had more than 14 years of experience in workplace safety and compliance at state OSHA and had climbed his way up through the ranks. He’d also worked in health and safety compliance in the private sector.

Armstrong’s OSHA whistleblower complaint was already in the system when Lankford assumed his role as chief administrator in August 2014. Armstrong, a 23-year employee of Ear Nose and Throat Associates with a spotless work record, and a co-worker reported what they considered the unsafe medical practices of their employer – including allegations of the misuse of needles and prescribing patients expired medications. But instead of protecting Armstrong’s identity, an OSHA investigator exposed it, and the loyal medical office employee allegedly began suffering from a hostile workplace.

She eventually was fired, but in 2017 filed a federal lawsuit against Lankford and three other state officials for failing to protect her whistleblower status. That lawsuit was dismissed, but has been heard on appeal by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Lankford surely knows every detail of the Armstrong complaint, the course of action taken by the state, and whether OSHA was pressured to close its brief inquiry into her allegations. In statements, former OSHA investigators have already said as much.

Although Lankford wasn’t deposed in the case that’s now on appeal, he wasn’t silent about the way the system worked in the Armstrong matter. Recorded statements he made to Seth Isaacs, described in court documents as a non-legal representative of Armstrong, were part of the record.

Lankford appears to concur that he felt pressured from the business and his bosses, which in 2015 included Steve George, then Administrator of the Division of Industrial Relations. In July George sent Lankford an email “ordering him to cease investigating the claims until further notice.” Appointed in 2014 to a position in a department he later admitted he had “little or no knowledge” about, George left DIR in August 2016. He is a defendant in the lawsuit being appealed.

On December 10, 2015, then-Deputy Director of DBI Terry Reynolds was even more direct, instructing Lankford to close the case that day, according to court documents. Appointed Director of DBI in October 2019, Reynolds is also a defendant in the lawsuit.

“If I was doing my job, I would not have allowed them to manipulate so much of it,” Lankford told Isaacs. “… I should not have allowed these outside influences to intervene in this case. I was not strong enough to stop all of this garbage.”

Lankford added that the Armstrong whistleblower complaint had “too many hands in the pot. We should’ve been allowed to do what we wanted to do.” He appeared to lay blame for the snuffed investigation on the influence of an attorney for the medical practice and DBI officials, adding “and that’s about as much as I am willing to divulge.”

That’s quite a lot, really.

Lest there be any confusion about Lankford’s sense of duty, and whether it was being undermined, he said, “Nevada OSHA will never be able to carry out our mission when we have to submit to the whims of Nevada Division of Business and Industry. We were supposedly put here for budgetary reasons, but situations like this makes me wonder.”

Now Jess Lankford, once heralded as possessing “a wealth of workplace safety experience in all corners of the state,” is out as OSHA’s chief administrator.

He might not want to discuss the Armstrong matter further, but if the Ninth Circuit kicks her lawsuit back to the lower court there should be ample time to sit for a deposition.

None of it figures to bolster Nevada OSHA’s reputation for independently investigating whistleblower complaints.

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal— “Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. He is also the author of a new book, "Saints, Sinners, and Sovereign Citizens: The Endless War Over the West’s Public Lands." On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.