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Punishing whistleblower creates "culture of silence," says OSHA (1/6)

A whistleblower investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration has found that the Metro North Commuter Railroad Co. brought disciplinary charges against an employee in the railroad's New Haven, Conn., rail yard who filed a whistleblower complaint with OSHA. OSHA has ordered the railroad, which provides commuter rail service in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, to take corrective action and pay the worker $80,500 in punitive damages and attorney's fees.

"Taking repeated disciplinary action against an employee who exercised his legal right to report an on-the-job injury and voiced a complaint about retaliatory treatment by his employer is unconscionable," said Marthe Kent, OSHA's Boston-based New England regional administrator, in a press release. "Such treatment instills a culture of silence in which hazardous conditions are masked because employees will be fearful of reporting them."

The employee faced disciplinary action from Metro North after he filed a whistleblower complaint with OSHA in November 2008 that alleged retaliation related to his earlier reporting of a workplace injury. OSHA's investigation, conducted under the whistleblower provisions of the Federal Railroad Safety Act, found merit to the complaint.

As a result, OSHA has ordered Metro North to take corrective actions, including expunging disciplinary actions and references to the worker from various records, reimbursing the worker a total of $5,500 in attorney's fees and paying him punitive damages in the amount of $75,000. In addition, the railroad must provide its employees with information about their whistleblower rights and their right to report on-the-job injuries.

Metro North and the complainant each have 30 days from receipt of the findings to file an appeal with the Labor Department's Office of Administrative Law Judges. Under the FRSA, employees of a railroad carrier and its contractors and subcontractors are protected against retaliation for reporting on-the-job injuries, reporting certain safety and security violations, and cooperating with investigations by OSHA and other regulatory agencies.

OSHA enforces Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which prohibits discharge and other retaliation against employees for filing a safety or health complaint, and for exercising a wide range of other rights afforded to them by the act. OSHA also enforces the whistleblower provisions of 19 other statutes protecting workers who report violations of various trucking, railway, airline, nuclear power, pipeline, environmental, securities, public transportation, consumer product and maritime safety laws. Detailed information is available online at www.whistleblowers.gov.

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