A Metro worker who blew the whistle on the transit agency's safety problems paid a price for telling, according to an inspector general's report.

The worker had cooperated with Metro's Inspector General's Office on an audit, which the inspector general later found was "at least a contributing factor" in retaliation taken against the worker.

A newly formed agency panel found in favor of the worker, ordering unspecified "relief" to compensate the whistleblower.

The case, submitted in July, was the first to go before the panel as the agency tries to make it easier for employees to drop a dime. It has since addressed one other case of retaliation, according to Metro.

The new system requires employees to report retaliation to the Inspector General's Office, even though speaking to the office is what got the first worker in trouble. The case highlights Metro's difficulties in trying to improve its safety reporting culture after damning audits and outside reports found the agency had a culture of fear around reporting safety problems.

Employees have noticed problems worth reporting, though. A survey completed by more than 90 percent of Metro's 10,000-strong work force issued in September found almost 60 percent of the employees said they had seen a safety violation on the job.

About one-third said they would not report a safety violation and cited fear of "retaliation" from co-workers.

Still, Inspector General Helen Lew told The Washington Examiner that if Metro employees or contractors feel they have been retaliated against, they should notify her office. She said her staff would investigate it and forward any findings to the new hearing panel.

Metro expanded its whistleblower protection policy over the summer to include federal protections that prohibit reprisals against employees who report safety violations. The whistleblower retaliation panel was formed in the fall, made up of the agency's chief of staff, human resources director and general counsel, said spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein. She declined to say what relief it offered to the first whistleblower, saying it varies case by case.

The agency also has said it established a hotline for employees to report safety concerns anonymously. Initially it was a voicemail, Farbstein said, but now workers can call someone directly, speak face to face or file a report on the agency's intranet.

Farbstein said posters with tear-off sheets listing the new hotline have been posted at all work sites and it has been promoted in safety committee meetings and employee newsletters. In 2010, 175 reports were made to the hotline, she said; 52 have been made this year.

Yet some Metro workers, when asked about the new hotline, said they did not know it existed. "I wish I knew about it," said one Metrobus operator when told of the line.