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A railroad company was ordered to pay the maximum punitive damages—a record sum—to an employee who reported a work-related injury.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) ordered Metro-North Railroad, a commuter service serving Connecticut and the New York City area, to pay $260,000 for retaliating against the injured worker. The fine is the largest ever assessed in a retaliation case under the Federal Railroad Safety Act.
The law prohibits rail companies from disciplining employees for reporting on-the-job injuries or unsafe working conditions.
OSHA found that Metro-North filed disciplinary charges against the employee after he reported injuring his knee in 2011, and then filed additional charges after he filed a complaint with OSHA. The employee’s supervisor also allegedly intimidated the worker, reportedly telling him that “railroad employees who are hurt on the job are written up for safety and are not considered for advancement or promotions within the company.”
Co-workers interviewed by OSHA corroborated these claims. One worker said she smashed her foot with a barrel while on the job, yet she did not file an accident report and showed up to work every day using crutches in hope of keeping her injury record clean. Another worker was injured when her hand was caught in a broken door but, like her co-worker, she did not fill out an incident report for fear of reprisal.
In addition to the penalty, Metro-North has been ordered to expunge the disciplinary actions from the employee’s record, train supervisors on employee whistle-blower rights and post notices of those rights.
“When employees, fearing retaliation, hesitate to report work-related injuries and the safety hazards that caused them, companies cannot fix safety problems and neither employees nor the public are safe,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health David Michaels, in a press release. “In this case, Metro-North’s conduct was deliberate and discriminatory,” he added.
Metro-North spokesman Aaron Donovan responded in a statement that the incident was a relic of the past and that “Metro-North has made considerable strides to create and promote a safety culture that encourages employees to report safety concerns and injuries without fear of retaliation. The Metro-North of today has zero tolerance for discipline targeted against those reporting safety violations or injuries.” Donovan said the railroad has been training supervisors on workers’ anti-retaliation protections as well as developing a confidential reporting system to use for reporting safety concerns.
OSHA enforces the whistle-blower provisions of 22 statutes, protecting employees who report violations of airline, commercial motor carrier, consumer product, environmental, financial reform, food safety, health care reform, nuclear, pipeline, public transportation agency, maritime and securities laws.
Under these laws, employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees who raise protected concerns or provide protected information to the employer or to the government. Employees who believe that they have been retaliated against for engaging in protected conduct may file a complaint with OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program.
Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
Follow him @SHRMRoy
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