A major commuter railroad serving Connecticut and the New York City area has been ordered to pay an unfairly disciplined employee nearly $300,000. The ruling, issued on December 16, 2014, by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, includes record punitive damages of $250,000, about $10,000 in compensation for lost wages and medical expenses, and attorney fees for the worker who filed whistleblower claims under the Federal Railroad Safety Act.
The law, most commonly referred to as FRSA, makes it illegal for a rail corporation to suspend, terminate or refuse to promote an employee for reporting an on-the-job injury or dangerous working condition. According to OSHA, Metro-North violated the FRSA job protections of a coach cleaner who suffered a knee injury while performing work-related duties in 2011. The employee’s supervisor reportedly tried to intimidate him into not filing an incident report, and other managers were found to have retaliated against the coach cleaner by suspending him at least twice during the following two years.
The Connecticut Post quoted Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels as justifying the FRSA award by saying, “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. In this case, Metro-North’s conduct was deliberate and discriminatory, and we have assessed the maximum amount in punitive damages allowed under the law.”
The newspaper also reported that engineers crewing two Metro-North locomotives that derailed and collided in Bridgeport, CT, in May 2013 have filed personal injury lawsuits against the railroad. Some 70 people suffered injuries in that accident, which happened when tracks separated and became misaligned.
In a press release announcing the FRSA award to the coach cleaner, OSHA pointed to an in-depth investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board into a series of accidents and employee injuries on Metro-North trains and in the company’s rail yards. Worker intimidation and retaliation could make some accidents inevitable, noted OSHA, because “if employees are discouraged from reporting injuries, the employees and the public are endangered as Metro-North cannot correct the conditions which caused the injuries.”
Having represented injured railroad employers for 30 years, I know that workers who get hurt on the job can face great pressure to keep their suffering to themselves. Even though such practices have been explicitly illegal under FRSA since the early 1970s, rail companies from Amtrak and CSX to BNSF and Norfolk Southern continue threatening the jobs of the people they should be protecting by making workplaces as safe as possible.
I send my congratulations to the Metro-North coach cleaner and his legal team for succeeding in holding the company to its legal and ethical obligations.