The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has ordered Norfolk Southern Railway Co. to pay $1.2 million to three workers for wrongfully terminating them for reporting workplace injuries, in violation of whistleblower provisions in the Federal Railroad Safety Act.
The company has also been ordered to expunge the disciplinary records of the three workers, post a notice regarding employees' whistleblower protection rights and train workers on these rights, the Labor Department said Feb. 28.
"The Labor Department continues to find serious whistleblower violations at Norfolk Southern, and we will be steadfast in our defense of a worker's right to a safe job — including his or her right to report injuries," acting Labor Secretary Seth D. Harris said in a statement. "When workers can't report safety concerns on the job without fear of retaliation, worker safety and health suffer, which costs working families and businesses alike."
Norfolk Southern plans to appeal the ruling to an administrative law judge.
In a statement provided to American Shipper
, the company said it "disagrees with OSHA's decision in these cases, which are the result of a flawed, one-sided procedure in which the railroad was not permitted to question the employees under oath or cross-examine witnesses."
An appeal will effectively void the decision and restart the legal proceedings.
"Moreover, we are disappointed and surprised by OSHA's findings, as OSHA had earlier encouraged the parties to reach voluntary resolutions of these cases, and OSHA was aware that the parties had exchanged settlement offers and demands, and were in the midst of discussing mediation," the NS statement said.
During its investigation, OSHA concluded that a crane operator in Fort Wayne, Ind., was removed from his job after reporting an injury that required the extraction of a sliver of metal and rust ring from his eye. NS had determined the worker made false statements about his injury.
A second case involved two workers in Pennsylvania who were hurt when a company truck they were riding were involved in an accident caused by another vehicle running a red light. OSHA said the employees initially reported minor shoulder paid and some stiffness, but declined medical treatment. As the pain increased, they sought treatment at a local hospital. Management concluded the reports about their condition were false and fired them, OSHA said.
NS was ordered to pay punitive damages, damages for lost wages, benefits and out-of-pocket expenses, compensatory damages for pain and suffering, interest on back pay and reasonable attorney fees. The crane worker must be reinstated in a job with a similar seniority level, with lost vacation and sick days.
OSHA said that it has issued several other orders against Norfolk Southern in the past two for retaliating against employees for reporting work-related injuries.
Last summer, OSHA and the Federal Railroad Administration agreed to coordinate enforcement of whistleblower provisions of the Federal Railroad Safety Act. OSHA says it has received 1,200 complaints in the past five years. The number of whistleblower complaints that OSHA currently receives under the Act surpasses the number it receives under any of the other 21 whistleblower protection statutes it enforces in other industries, except for one. More than 60 percent of the FRSA complaints filed with OSHA involve an allegation that a railroad worker has been retaliated against for reporting an on-the-job injury, according to the Labor Department. - Eric Kulisch