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Recent Actions Highlight OSHA’s Role in Enforcing Whistleblower Anti-Retaliation Laws

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The Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration is known for its role in implementing and enforcing safety standards in workplaces across the United States. But another main role played by OSHA is its enforcement of the whistleblower anti-retaliation provisions of a number of statutes, including but not limited to: The Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the Clean Air Act, the Surface Transportation Safety Act, and the Federal Railroad Safety Act. Several recent actions by OSHA demonstrate the seriousness with which OSHA enforces these statutes.

On August 4, 2015, OSHA announced that it filed suit against Continental Alloys and Services, Inc., a Houston-based company which provides steel for oil and gas companies, for violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act’s whistleblower provision. In this case, a former employee filed a complaint for wrongful termination after Continental fired her, allegedly because she complained that the company failed to log workplace injuries in violation of OSHA regulations.  The whistleblower reported several instances when the company failed to log injuries, and even recorded a meeting with the company official who failed to record the injuries in order to gather evidence for an internal investigation. Continental fired her as a result of her actions. In its suit, OSHA seeks an injunction barring further retaliation, and reinstatement, back pay, and any other damages suffered by the whistleblower.

In another case, OSHA announced on July 15, 2015 that it ordered Oak Harbor Freight Lines, Inc., a freight shipping company based in Auburn, Washington, to cease its retaliation against truck drivers who refuse to drive when they feel ill or fatigued, in violation of the Surface Transportation Safety Act. In this case, a 25-year old truck driver filed a complaint after the company suspended him without pay because he did not drive because of illness.

OSHA notes that this case involves its second finding of unlawful retaliation against Oak Harbor for violations of the Surface Transportation Safety Act. Additionally, OSHA’s investigation determined that the company’s policies encourage its drivers to operate trucks even when they are ill, as the company has a practice of placing negative comments in drivers’ personnel files when those drivers are absent due to illness or exhaustion. In addition to ordering that Oak Harbor remove the negative comments from the aggrieved driver’s personnel file, OSHA ordered the company to pay the driver $354 for the suspension, plus $20,000 in punitive damages.

On July 9, 2015, OSHA announced it had filed suit against Deere & Co. (commonly known as John Deere) for the company’s termination of an employee who reported workplace conditions at the company’s Moline, Illinois plant that subjected workers to potential serious injury. In this suit, OSHA alleges that John Deere unlawfully fired an employee in June 2012, in violation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, after that employee filed three OSHA complaints regarding workplace safety issues, including one which resulted in OSHA citing the company for “five serious safety violations.” OSHA seeks reinstatement, back pay, damages, and removal of negative reviews from the employee’s personnel file.

And on June 17, 2015, OSHA reported that it had ordered Burlington Northern Santa Fe, LLC (BNSF Railway) to reinstate and pay more than $500,000 to a former conductor that the company fired after he reported a knee injury, in violation of the Federal Railroad Safety Act.  The employee filed a report regarding his injury, and later filed an anti-discrimination complaint under the FRSA. BNSF then terminated his employment.

These recent cases show that OSHA continues to stringently enforce the whistleblower anti-retaliation provisions of a number of statutes. Strict enforcement of whistleblower anti-retaliation provisions is important because it empowers whistleblowers to make their complaints in the first place. Whistleblower protections allow workers and the American public to be protected from unsafe work practices and fraud that threaten physical safety and the safety of the American economy.

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