Railroad Workers, Fired For Reporting Injuries, Awarded $802,000, Feds Rule

If you work in a dangerous industry, you know injuries are a risk. You probably don't expect, however, that getting fired for reporting your injury is a risk too. But this week the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has fined a railroad operator $802,000 for allegedly doing just that -- not once, but three times in three separate states, reports The Virginian-Pilot.

In 2009, Norfolk Southern fired an employee in Greenville, S.C., after he reported being injured by a company truck that struck him. The next year, the company fired an engineer in Louisville, Ky., and a conductor in Harrisburg, Pa., after they reported injuries from falling in or near company bathrooms, according to an OSHA press release.

Norfolk Southern accused the first employee of "improper performance of duties." But the OSHA found that he had been treated differently from the other four workers involved in the incident, who hadn't reported any injuries. The railroad company said the other two employees were fired for "falsifying their injuries," but the OSHA determined that their hearings were "flawed," and in the case of the engineer, had been "orchestrated to intentionally support the decision to terminate the employee." The conductor hadn't lost any work time due to injuries in his 35-year career, the OSHA said, and the day before had in fact been "lauded for excellent performance."

"Firing workers for reporting an injury is not only illegal, it also endangers all workers," assistant U.S. Secretary of Labor David Michaels said in a statement. The OSHA investigation found that Norfolk Southern employees "are reluctant to report an injury and/or illness, fearing that they will be targeted and eventually terminated from employment." And this pattern of retaliation had "effectively created a chilling effect in the railroad industry."

This kind of suppression of worker injuries seems worryingly common in the railroad sector. In March, a federal jury awarded a Metro North employee $1 million, finding that the railway company retaliated against him after a railroad tie fell and injured his foot. That same month, OSHA fined Metro North an additional $18,000 for retaliating against another employee, who had injured his finger.

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Norfolk Southern paid another fine for illegal retaliation last year. At the time, the company had already been previously cited by the Federal Railroad Administration for intimidating employees from reporting their injuries, OSHA noted. The company's injury rates were so low that it had received "the prestigious E.H. Harriman Rail Safety Gold Medal Award for 22 consecutive years."

But injuries do happen. In February, a judge ordered the company to pay $4.5 million to a worker in Roanake, Va., who had hurt his ankle tripping over a crosstie -- one of the largest personal injury verdicts in the city's history, reported The Roanoke Times. Norfolk Southern spokesman Robin Chapman said that the company would appeal the three most recent the decisions.

"The Labor Department will continue to protect all employees, including those in the railroad industry, from retaliation for exercising these basic worker rights," its press release said. "Employers found in violation will be held accountable."

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