On May 13, 2009, an employee of Norfolk Southern Railway Company was injured on the job in Jamestown, N.C., while removing a spike from the rail line. Fearing being terminated, the worker did not report his injury until after he was again injured on the job in October. At the suggestion of Norfolk Southern management, the injured employee saw a doctor, but when he returned to work, management suspended and later terminated him, alleging he falsified his injury.
The employee complained to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which responded by launching an investigation of Norfolk Southern that found the company had violated the employee’s rights under the Federal Railroad Safety Act (FRSA). But that was just the beginning of it. Probing further, OSHA inspectors found the company “successfully intimidated other employees from reporting on-the-job injuries.”
This practice had what OSHA’s website calls a “chilling effect” because it 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.”
According to Norfolk Southern Railway’s website, the E.H. Harriman award honors companies for “achieving the rail industry’s lowest employee personal injury ratio.”
OSHA ordered Norfolk Southern Railway to pay $122,199 for the violations. Additionally, OSHA requires the company to pay the terminated employee compensatory damages for pain and suffering, reasonable attorney’s fees, and $75,000 in punitive damages for what it called the “company’s reckless disregard of the individual’s rights under FRSA.”
OSHA has also ordered the railroad to clean the employee’s disciplinary record and post notices for employees about their whistleblower protection rights under the FRSA.
“Every American worker has the right to report an injury without fear of retaliation or intimidation,” said Cindy A. Coe, OSHA’s regional administrator in Atlanta. “The U.S. Department of Labor is committed to protecting all employees, including those in the railroad industry, from such mistreatment and will prosecute these employers to the fullest extent of the law.”
The railway company has filed formal objections to OSHA’s findings and the press release that announced its findings, alleging the agency has smeared it and its safety record with “unjustified aspersions.”