Federal officials have levied the largest penalty of its kind against an employer following an investigation that showed the company taking action against an employee who reported a workplace injury.
The Metro-North Commuter Railroad, based in Hartford, CT, has been ordered to pay the employee $250,000 in punitive damages, $10,000 in compensatory damages and “reasonable attorney fees.”
OSHA investigated following a complaint filed by a coach cleaner.
In November 2011, the employee suffered a knee injury on the job when he tripped on a wooden board that was sticking up six inches from a paved pathway.
The worker’s foreman drove him to the hospital. On the way, the worker secretly recorded the conversation with his boss.
On the recording, the foreman said employees who get hurt on the job are automatically written up for safety violations and aren’t considered for promotions. The foreman said she believed she received a promotion because she hid workplace injuries she had suffered.
The worker rejected that advice and filled out an injury report. Shortly afterward, he was written up “for failing to keep a safe distance from protruding objects.”
After filing a discrimination complaint, Metro-North further disciplined the worker.
OSHA administrator David Michaels said:
“When employees, fearing retaliation hesitate to report work-related injuries and the safety hazards that caused them, companies cannot fix safety problems … we have assessed the maximum amount in punitive damages allowed under the law.”
Previous investigations found safety problems
Just last month, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a preliminary report regarding several recent incidents, including fatalities, involving Metro-North.
Among the NTSB findings: Metro-North didn’t have a program that encouraged employees to report safety issues.
A Metro-North spokesman said since 2011, the railroad has promoted a safety culture that encourages employees to report safety concerns and injuries without retaliation.
The fear of reporting injuries at Metro-North apparently ran deeper than just this one case. During its investigation, OSHA found others workers had tried to hide painful and crushing injuries and continued to show up for work so they wouldn’t face discipline.