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OSHA alleges railway company maintained safety record through “chilling” employee intimidation

August 11, 2011
Norfolk Southern Railway Co. has been ordered by OSHA to pay a former employee $122,199 in compensatory and punitive damages as well as reasonable attorney's fees. The company violated the employee's rights under the whistleblower provisions of the Federal Railroad Safety Act by terminating the employee for reporting an on-the-job injury in 2009.

On May 13, 2009, the employee was initially injured in Jamestown, N.C., while removing a spike from the rail line. Fearing loss of employment, the worker did not report the injury until a re-injury occurred in October when, at the suggestion of management, the employee saw a doctor. After returning to work, the employee was suspended and later terminated for allegedly falsifying the injury. The employee submitted a complaint to OSHA and the agency's investigation determined that not only were the employee's rights under the FRSA violated, the company also successfully intimidated other employees from reporting on-the-job injuries. This "chilling effect" allowed Norfolk Southern to maintain the appearance of an exemplary safety record and continue its 22-consecutive-year record as recipient of the E.H.Harriman Gold Medal Rail Safety Award.

The order issued by OSHA awards the former employee, now living in Greensboro, compensatory damages including pain and suffering; reasonable attorney's fees; and $75,000 in punitive damages for the company's reckless disregard of the individual's rights under FRSA. Either party can file an appeal to the Labor Department's Office of Administrative Law Judges. The railroad also has been ordered to expunge the disciplinary record of the individual and post a notice in all of its areas where employee notices are customarily posted on whistleblower protection rights under the FRSA.

Norfolk Southern Railway Co. is a major transporter/hauler of coal and other commodities serving every major container port in the eastern United States with connections to western carriers. Headquartered in Norfolk, Va., the company employs more than 30,000 union workers.

OSHA enforces the whistleblower provisions of the Federal Railroad Safety Act and 20 other statutes protecting employees who report violations of various airline, commercial motor carrier, consumer product, environmental, financial reform, food safety, health care reform nuclear, pipeline, public transportation agency, railroad, maritime and securities laws. Employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees who raise various protected concerns or provide protected information to the employer or to the government. Employees who believe they have been retaliated against for engaging in protected conduct may file a complaint with the secretary of labor for an investigation by OSHA's Whistleblower Protection Program. Detailed information on employee whistleblower rights, including fact sheets, is available online at http://www.whistleblowers.gov.