OSHA’s Whistleblower Office has slammed Metro North Railroad with punitive damages for using a Federal Rail Safety Act complaint as a basis for disciplining a worker. After a laborer at Metro North’s New Haven Shop filed a FRSA complaint, the Railroad charged the worker with “Conduct unbecoming a Metro-North employee in that you filed a false statement in your complaint to OSHA claiming violations of the Federal Rail Safety Act.” Metro North then held a disciplinary trial on that charge and issued a 30-day suspension. Even though Metro North later dropped the suspension and the worker lost no wages, OSHA nevertheless imposed over $80,000 in punitive damages and attorney fees against the Railroad.

OSHA found that “All the evidence indicates that the management officials most involved in the trial and decision knew that the charges and subsequent discipline were retaliatory but they allowed it to happen anyway.” OSHA went on to warn railroads:

The acts of bringing disciplinary charges and instituting trial proceedings against an employee for filing a complaint with OSHA and accusing the employee of lying to OSHA in those charges and proceedings have a chilling effect on the Railroad’s employees and would tend to dissuade others from asserting their rights under FRSA. Even if the charge is later dropped, that does not remedy this chilling effect, as the act of bringing the charge against an employee undermines all of the Railroad’s employees’ willingness and ability to exercise their most basic rights under FRSA. . . . Metro North’s conduct in retaliation against an employee for filing a FRSA complaint with OSHA exhibited a reckless disregard for the law and complete indifference to the Complainant’s rights and the rights of Metro North’s other employees. Bringing disciplinary charges against an employee that on their face threaten discipline for claiming violations of FRSA (regardless of whether the charges are later dropped) functions to chill employees from exercising their most basic rights under FRSA.

In a Press Release, OSHA’s Regional Administrator indicated that the FRSA is designed to remedy the “culture of silence in which hazardous conditions are masked because employees will be fearful of reporting them” and stressed it is “unconscionable” for a railroad to discipline an employee for  invoking his FRSA rights.

The message to railroads nationwide is: workers who file FRSA complaints are protected from any discipline that is based in whole or in part on the filing or content of the complaint. So don’t even think about using a FRSA complaint as the basis for discipline, unless of course you enjoy getting hit with punitive damages. Here is the complete text of Blocker v. Metro North Railroad decision.  For a National Public Radio piece on this Award, click here. For more on the FRSA, go to the free Rail Whistleblower Library.