Safety and OSHA News

Was firing for reporting injury? Company must pay $213K

A railroad employee was injured at work, reported it and filled out required paperwork. Weeks later he was fired.

Now OSHA says it was a case of retaliation for reporting the injury.

OSHA has ordered Union Pacific Railroad Co. to immediately reinstate employee Brian Petersen to his job at the North Platte, NE, yard and to pay him $213,000 in wages, compensatory damages, attorney’s fees and punitive damages.

Union Pacific says it will appeal the decision.

On Aug. 28, 2009, Petersen went out to his car near the end of his shift to check his cell phone for messages to see if he’d work overtime that night. Petersen says it’s common practice, and at the time several other employees were doing the same.

While he was in the parking lot, another employee, arriving for work, ran over Petersen’s foot. He reported the injury, was treated by the company nurse and filled out an injury report.

The next day, both he and the driver of the car were suspended from work for not being alert and not taking needed precautions. Petersen had never been disciplined before.

Four days after the two-week suspension, Petersen was fired for standing on two bearings in the run-through building. Standing on the bearings was a common practice, and no other employees were written up for it.

OSHA ruled that Petersen was unfairly singled out.

Union Pacific leveled a top safety violation against Petersen even though he’d never been disciplined before. Others with worse safety records were disciplined less.

During OSHA’s investigation, more than one employee said Union Pacific intimidated those who report workplace injuries.

“The real crux of the problem is — when a guy misses work because of an injury, that’s a lost time day that goes on the record,” Petersen’s attorney Lou Jungbauer said. “Bonuses for managers are tied to clean safety records, so they don’t want employees to report injuries.”

Petersen has been living with his in-laws in Lincoln, NE, where he took a job in an auto body repair shop. He says he just wants to go back to his job.

Analysis: Apply rules uniformly

Having a discipline program for when employees violate safety rules is a great thing.

However, when the rules aren’t applied uniformly, companies can get into trouble in retaliation cases.

Another important rule of thumb for disciplining workers for safety violations: Document what happened and why you’re taking action.

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