Talk about sending a message! OSHA has blown the whistle on Metro North Railroad’s culture of retaliation. Big time. No longer do railroad workers have to fear reporting an injury or a safety violation. The days when railroad managers could retaliate with impunity are officially over. Every railroad in the country is now on notice that retaliation by managers will lead to punitive damages.

Under the new Federal Rail Safety Act (FRSA), railroad workers are protected from retaliation when they report any injuries or safety violations. These four workers turned to me for help when Metro North retaliated against them for reporting their railroad injuries: Ralph Tagliatela of West Haven, CT (station custodian), Larry Ellis of the Bronx, NY (car cleaner in GCT) Andy Barati of Waterbury, CT (trackman), and Anthony Santiago of Hopewell Junction, NY (shop electrician). We filed FRSA complaints that have resulted in the following remedies: $75,000 in punitive damages to each employee (total of $300,000); up to $10,000 in compensatory damages (total of $40,000); all lost wages with 6% interest; expungement of discipline records; barring Metro North from using injury sick days or injury reports to bar transfers or promotions; forcing Metro North to give each of its employees a copy of the OSHA Whistleblower Fact Sheet explaining their rights under the FRSA; and attorney’s fees.

In the first wave of FRSA whistleblower complaints, this group stands out both for the variety of the management retaliation and the strength of OSHA’s response. As the railroad lawyer for all four employees, I can attest to the savvy of the OSHA investigator, who promptly launched her investigations and didn’t let up until she had a thorough grasp of Metro North’s culture of retaliation against employees who report injuries and safety concerns.

OSHA issued a press release that included this statement: “Railroad employees have the right to report occupational injuries and illnesses without fear that doing so will negatively affect their jobs, their health or their income,” said Jordan Barab, acting U.S. assistant secretary of labor for safety and health. “Retaliating against employees for exercising this basic, legally protected workplace right is unacceptable.”

On Metro North, OSHA’s whistleblower investigators quickly ran into the stonewall of an entrenched management culture in which retaliation against employees is expected and rewarded. And Metro North’s own conduct in response to the FRSA complaints was the ultimate proof of that problem: Metro North flatly refused to cooperate with OSHA’s reasonable demands for documents while asserting ridiculous interpretations of the FRSA’s broad remedial language. See this earlier blog entry where I predicted that such stonewalling will result in punitive damages.  These cases prove my point: the shortest distance between a FRSA complaint and a punitive damages award is for railroads to tell OSHA to go pound sand. The only thing that will get pounded is the railroad.

So for railroads across the country, the days of care-free retaliation are over. Refusing to change your ways is not an option. This action by OSHA proves the FRSA has sharp teeth that will shred recalcitrant railroads to pieces, while costing them real money. The message is clear: stop retaliating against employees, or get out your check book.

For more information on how the FRSA protects railroad workers, go to the free Rail Whistleblower Library.