Terrence Blocker worked for the Metro-North Commuter Railroad Company in New Haven, Connecticut, since 2003. He was a laborer in Metro-North’s maintenance shop (called the MU Shop), and a union member.
On July 27, 2008, Blocker was operating a shuttle wagon. It tipped over and fell into a repair pit. Blocker suffered a small cut on his forehead, and he had stiff muscles starting the following day. On July 30, 2008, Blocker saw a doctor who discovered he had sprained his spine and right shoulder. When Blocker later asked for a copy of the company’s report of the accident, he discovered there was none. On August 25, 2008, Blocker’s doctor recommended physical therapy. That same day, Metro North management decided to conduct a trial to determine if Blocker was responsible for the accident. Blocker stopped going to his physical therapy because he thought the company would not pay for it. Metro North found Blocker guilty of unsafe operation of the shuttle wagon and imposed a 10-day suspension on him. Blocker promptly complained to OSHA that this suspension was unlawful retaliation in violation of the Federal Railroad Safety Act (FRSA), 49 U.S.C. § 20109. Management then gave notice that they would conduct another trial against Blocker, accusing him of providing false information to OSHA. Blocker filed an amended complaint with OSHA alleging that the new trial was unlawful retaliation for filing his original OSHA complaint. Management then amended its notice for the hearing to claim that he was guilty of failing to report his injury and submit his medical substantiation. After the trial, management imposed a 30-day suspension on Blocker, for the offense of filing "a false statement in your complaint to [OSHA] claiming violations of the [FRSA]." Management explained to OSHA that this was a typographical error.
OSHA has now ordered Metro North to pay Blocker $75,000 in punitive damages, and to pay Blocker’s attorney, Charlie Goetsch. "Taking repeated disciplinary action against an employee who exercised his legal right to report an on-the-job injury and voiced a complaint about retaliatory treatment by his employer is unconscionable," said Marthe Kent, OSHA’s New England regional administrator in a press release. "Such treatment instills a culture of silence in which hazardous conditions are masked because employees will be fearful of reporting them."
OSHA has also required Metro North to expunge Blocker’s record to remove the 30-day suspension. OSHA did not find that Blocker’s injury report provoked the 10-day suspension. The railroad must provide its employees with information about their whistleblower rights and their right to report on-the-job injuries, both with other workplace posters, and on its internal web page. Either party may object to the determination and ask for a de novo hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). If they do, the ALJ could modify the punitive damages. The FRSA allows punitive damages up to $250,000.
While OSHA has a policy of withholding the names of whistleblowers from press releases, in this case Charlie Goetsch posted the determination, with Blocker’s name, on his web page. Congratulations to them both for this nice result.