The Metro-North Railroad is under fire for punishing an employee who reported an injury he suffered at work three years ago and must now pay his attorney fees, along with hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.
According to the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a worker hired to clean railroad cars in April 2011 hurt his knee when he tripped on a wooden board sticking up 6 inches from the pavement in November of that year.
The worker told his managers what had happened and secretly recorded a conversation with the supervisor who drove him to the hospital. The supervisor warned against taking time off from work to keep “a clean record” and said “the employee gets watched all the time, and gets nailed” for reporting injuries at work, according to OSHA.
“If you have an injury on your record at Metro-North you are not going anywhere,” the supervisor said, according to the report. “You will stay a car cleaner the rest of your life.”
Despite a doctor’s orders not to return to work for a few days, Metro-North charged the employee with rules violations, including failure to properly perform his duties, failure to “keep a safe distance from passing cars and trains to avoid being struck by falling or protruding objects, failing to “use established routes, paths, crosswalks, and walkways” and conduct unbecoming of a Metro-North employee, state officials said.
He waived a disciplinary hearing to avoid a 30-day suspension and accepted a lesser punishment, the report says. The employee left work in Stamford and was then based out of New Haven and Bridgeport, where his supervisor continued to inspect his work. According to the report, the worker was “targeted under scrutiny” and “subjected to fear of losing his job because of further unwarranted discipline.”
Metro-North charged him with failure to properly perform duties in November 2012. Less than six months later, the worker filed his first complaint with the Federal Railroad Safety Administration. He filed a second complaint in April 2013.
“The Railroad’s conduct has the effect of intimidating me and my fellow workers from notifying the Railroad of safety concerns and reporting injuries, and as such exercises an improper chilling effect,” he wrote in one of the complaints, according to OSHA.
Now the Department of Labor has ordered Metro-North to clear the employee’s record of all charges and pay “reasonable” attorney fees, along with $10,000 in compensatory damages and $250,000 in punitive damages. The railroad must also post a notice to employees saying it will not discriminate against them or intimidate them for reporting workplace injuries.
“When employees, fearing retaliation, hesitate to report work-related injuries and the safety hazards that caused them, companies cannot fix safety problems and neither employees nor the public are safe,” said OSHA Asst. Secretary of Labor Dr. David Michaels, in a statement Tuesday. Michaels called the railroad’s conduct “deliberate and discriminatory.”
The railroad responded with a statement Monday night that reads, in part:
“The events that are the subject of the OSHA ruling occurred in 2011. Since then, Metro-North has made considerable strides to create and promote a safety culture that encourages employees to report safety concerns and injuries without fear of retaliation. Among the changes that Metro-North is making is the implementation of the confidential close call reporting system so that employees can report safety issues without fear of reprisal. Metro-North is also requiring supervisor instruction in safety training that emphasizes the importance of the anti-retaliation protections afforded employees under the Federal Rail Safety Act.”
Metro-North officials added that the railroad has “zero tolerance for discipline targeted against those reporting safety violations or injuries.”