Two recent cases show why OSHA works to protect whistleblowers against retaliation from their employers, the agency said.

The U.S. Labor Department recently ordered one of the nation’s largest freight railroad networks to pay more than $290,000 in back pay, damages, and fees to a worker whose rights were violated under the Federal Railroad Safety Act.

OSHA, which falls under the DOL's auspices, found that the BNSF Railway Co., accused the worker of violating a doctor’s orders to not engage in physical activity after a work-related injury.

When the worker provided documents during a subsequent hearing to show that his doctor allowed physical activity, BNSF ignored the documents and fired him.

OSHA found that the railway violated federal law and ordered the railway to reinstate the worker and pay back wages, compensatory damages, and attorney’s fees, in addition to $150,000 in punitive damages.

“Federal law ensures that employees who report work-related injuries and follow the instructions of their treating physicians are protected from their employer’s adverse actions,” said OSHA Regional Administrator Eric Harbin in Dallas.

Unsafe Conditions

In the second case, DOL filed a federal complaint that seeks damages from a Missouri company for firing a whistleblower who reported unsafe working conditions.

The employee, a production operator at Zoltek Corp.’s carbon fiber manufacturing plant, first brought safety concerns to management, then shared his concerns with a third-party auditor who was reviewing operations at the St. Peters, Mo., plant.

Zoltek suspended the worker the next day. The worker then filed a safety complaint with OSHA, and was fired 14 days after the suspension.

OSHA investigated the worker’s complaint that Zoltek fired him in April 2019 in retaliation for reporting unsafe working conditions.

In March 2021, OSHA filed a complaint in federal court in Missouri, alleging Zoltek violated the whistleblower statute when it fired the worker.

Zoltek disputes the allegations.

OSHA seeks back wages, reinstatement of the worker plus damages, and an order requiring Zoltek to post a notice detailing employees’ rights to report unsafe working conditions without fear of retaliation.

OSHA has more than 20 whistleblower statutes that protect employees from retaliation for reporting violations of workplace safety.

For more information, contact CBIA’s Phillip Montgomery (860.244.1982).