Our firm has discussed several troubling episodes recently involving railroad companies that have used on-the-job injuries as an excuse to punish and even fire workers. Thankfully, the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has caught on to the companies’ misbehavior and has handed down several major rulings against railroad companies like Union Pacific in only the last few months.
Another case that occurred at the end of January is worth mentioning because, rather than just hand down another whopper of a fine, OSHA actually signed an agreement with BNSF Railway Co. about the inappropriate way it had been retaliating against workers whose only crime was suffering a workplace accident.
OSHA announced that BNSF had agreed to revise several of its policies governing personnel after the Department of Labor found that they violated clear provisions contained in the Federal Railroad Safety Act (FRSA) that are meant to protect whistleblowers. OSHA said the policies acted to dissuade workers from reporting workplace injuries and thus left other employees in danger of suffering similar harm.
The agreement that BNSF signed says that the company will change its polices so that previous workplace injuries do not play a role in deciding how long an employee is suspended in the event of a rule violation. OSHA found that the company was inappropriately using past work injuries as an excuse to unfairly keep workers off the job. BNSF admitted to having a system that assigned points to those workers who suffered injuries and keeping track of those rankings.
BNSF also agreed to strengthen internal systems to allow for an immediate review of any management decision to discipline an employee who suffered an on-the-job injury. Finally, BNSF said it would make settlement offers to 36 different employees who had filed whistleblower complaints against the company claiming that they had been unfairly retaliated against for suffering or reporting workplace accidents.
OSHA said that protecting injured railroad workers from retaliation is one of the agency’s central missions. The hope among many is that the latest episode with BNSF, as well as the major fines handed down to Union Pacific, will work to force the railroad companies to make much needed changes in how they approach injured workers. No employee should have to fear being harassed, intimidated or even fired for being hurt while on the job. It’s good to know OSHA is at least attempting to hold the railroad companies’ feet to the fire.
About the Editors: The Shapiro, Lewis & Appleton & Favaloro personal injury law firm, which has offices in Virginia (VA) and North Carolina (NC), edits the injury law blogs Virginia Beach Injuryboard, Norfolk Injuryboard and Northeast North Carolina Injuryboard as pro bono services.