July 28, 2014

OSHA reiterates zero tolerance for worker retaliation

OSHA logo; OSHAHere we go again – or should we say, again and again and again and again.

This time it is Canadian National’s Illinois Central Railroad and short line Chicago, Ft. Wayne & Eastern Railroad that have been hit with more than $650,000 in sanctions by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration for retaliating against three employees who reported workplace injuries and/or safety concerns.

Sadly, there is basis in fact for the refrain that no industry spends as much to hire and train new employees as do railroads and then works so hard to intimidate, harass and fire them.

The Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) said the more than $650,000 in sanctions is to go toward back wages and damages for two Illinois Central employees at the railroad’s Markham, Ill., yard, and a Chicago, Ft. Wayne and Eastern employee — all of whom were the targets of management retaliation in three separate incidents.

“It is critically important that railroad employees in the Midwest and across the nation know that OSHA intends to defend the rights of workers who report injuries and safety concerns,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor Dr. David Michaels. “We will use the full force of the law to make sure that workers who are retaliated against for reporting health and safety concerns are made whole.”

Michaels has said that before, in the wake of its investigations and sanctions against other railroads – and OSHA continues to deliver on its promise.

The Federal Rail Safety Act of 1970 extended whistleblower protection to employees retaliated against for reporting an injury or illness requiring medical attention. The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 added additional requirements ensuring injured workers receive prompt medical attention. An employer is outright prohibited from disciplining an employee for requesting medical or first-aid treatment, or for following a physician’s orders, a physician’s treatment plan, or medical advice, or for reporting workplace safety concerns.

Retaliation, including threats of retaliation, is defined as firing or laying off, blacklisting, demoting, denying overtime or promotion, disciplining, denying benefits, failing to rehire, intimidation, reassignment affecting promotion prospects, or reducing pay or hours.

OSHA, which does not identify whistleblowers, said the first employee, a conductor, was injured in August 2008 when he was knocked unconscious and sustained injuries to his shoulder, back and head while switching railcars in Illinois Central’s Markham, Ill., yard. A knuckle that connects the cars allegedly broke, said OSHA, causing the cars to suddenly jolt and the employee to fall. The railroad held an investigative hearing and consequently terminated the conductor, alleging he had violated safety rules. 

OSHA, however, found that the worker was terminated in reprisal for reporting a work-related injury.

The second employee, a carman, reported an arm/shoulder injury in February 2008. While walking along a platform to inspect railcars in the poorly lit yard, said OSHA, the carman slipped on ice and tried to catch himself, which jolted his left arm and shoulder. The railroad held an investigative hearing and consequently terminated the carman for allegedly violating the company’s injury reporting procedures.

OSHA, however, concluded that the carman had properly reported the injury.

 In the third incident, OSHA said Chicago Fort Wayne & Eastern Railroad – a RailAmerica property — wrongly terminated a conductor in retaliation for his raising concerns about workplace safety while serving as a union officer, and for reporting a trainmaster had instructed him to operate a train in violation of certain Federal Railroad Administration rules in June 2009 near Fort Wayne, Ind.

UTU designated legal counsel have pledged to investigate and assist UTU members in bringing complaints under these laws.

A rail employee may file a whistle-blower complaint directly with OSHA, or may contact a UTU designated legal counsel, general chairperson or state legislative director for assistance.

A listing of UTU designated legal counsel is available at:

http://utu.org/designated-legal-counsel

or may be obtained from local or general committee officers or state legislative directors.

To view a more detailed OSHA fact sheet, click on the following link:

www.osha.gov/Publications/OSHA-factsheet-whistleblower-railroad.pdf