This week, OSHA found that Norfolk Southern Railway Co., a major transporter of commodities based in Norfolk, Virginia, owed over $800,000 in damages to three whistleblowers. These actions are the most recent of a number of OSHA decisions against Norfolk Southern Railway Co. in the past year. OSHA found that the company continues to retaliate against employees for reporting work-related injuries and has created a chilling effect on the railroad industry.
On August 14, 2009, the first of the three whistleblowers was terminated after reporting an injury as a result of being hit by the company’s gang truck. The railroad charged the employee with improper performance of duties. As the only employee actually injured in the incident, the whistleblower was the only one to report an injury and the only employee fired. OSHA ordered the company to pay punitive damages of $200,000, compensatory damages of $110,852, and attorney’s fees of $14,325.
The second whistleblower was was terminated on March 31, 2010, after reporting an injury as a result of a fall. After an investigative hearing, which OSHA found to be flawed and intentionally biased against the employee, the company charged him with falsifying his injury. OSHA ordered $150,000 in punitive damages, $50,000 in compensatory damages, and $7,375 in attorneys fees.
The final employee was terminated on July 22, 2010, after reporting a head injury after falling down a flight of stairs. The day before this injury occurred, the employee had been declared an excellent employee. In the previous 35 years, he had not missed any work time due to injuries. Norfolk Southern Railway Co. decided that he had falsified the injury report, failed to promptly report the injury, and had made false and conflicting statements. OSHA found that the company’s hearing on the matter had been flawed and ordered the railroad to pay the employee $175,000 in punitive damages, $76,732.27 in back wages, and $17,993.43 in compensatory damages.
“Firing workers for reporting an injury is not only illegal, it also endangers all workers. When workers are discouraged from reporting injuries, no investigation into the cause of an injury can occur,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels. “To prevent more injuries, railroad workers must be able to report an injury without fear of retaliation. The Labor Department will continue to protect all employees, including those in the railroad industry, from retaliation for exercising these basic worker rights. Employers found in violation will be held accountable.”
These OSHA decisions implement a 2010 policy made by Dr. Michaels to assure that employees are free to report injuries. Dr. Michaels wants to protect workers who report injuries, and also wants to eliminate employer programs that reward employees when injuries are not reported. OSHA is hampered from issuing such award under Section 11(c) of the OSH Act, but the Federal Rail Safety Act (FRSA) allows OSHA to issue reinstatement orders, compensatory and punitive damage awards and attorney’s fees. The Protecting Americas Workers Act (PAWA) bill, H.R. 190, would modernize Section 11(c). It remains pending in the U.S. House of Representatives where the current leadership has refused to schedule even a hearing on the proposal.
This blog post was written by intern Julia Maloney.