BNSF OSHA Whistleblower Settlement Gives Employers Insights About Policies OSHA View As Prohibited

January 18, 2013

Review and update your policies and be careful how you handle employee reports of injury or safety concerns.  That’s the message of the settlement recently announced with BNSF Railway Co. of Fort Worth, Texas (BNSF).  BNSF has signed a settlement with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to voluntarily revise several personnel policies that OSHA alleged violated the whistleblower provisions of the Federal Railroad Safety Act. The law protects railroad workers from retaliation for, among other acts, reporting suspected violations of federal laws and regulations related to railroad safety and security, hazardous safety or security conditions, and injuries.

The whistleblower provisions of the 22 statutes enforced by OSHA protect employees who report violations of various commercial motor vehicle, airline, nuclear, pipeline, environmental, railroad, public transportation, maritime, consumer product, health care reform, securities, food safety, and consumer financial reform laws and regulations.OSHA charged that BNSF Policies of assigning points to workers reporting safety violations or injuries and other practices deterred or penalized workers protected by the whistleblower provisions of the law. 

The major terms of the BNSF settlement available at http://www.whistleblowers.gov/acts/bnsf_accord.html include:

  • Changing BNSF’s disciplinary policy so that injuries no longer play a role in determining the length of an employee’s probation following a record suspension for a serious rule violation. As of Aug. 31, 2012, BNSF has reduced the probations of 136 employees who were serving longer probations because they had been injured on-the-job.
  • Eliminating a policy that assigned points to employees who sustained on-the-job injuries.
  • Revising a program that required increased safety counseling and prescribed operations testing so that work-related injuries will no longer be the basis for enrolling employees in the program. As part of the negotiations leading up to the accord, BNSF removed from the program approximately 400 workers.
  • Instituting a higher level review by BNSF’s upper management and legal department for cases in which an employee who reports an on-duty personal injury is also assessed discipline related to the incident giving rise to the injury.
  • Implementing a training program for BNSF’s managers and labor relations and human resources professionals to educate them about their responsibilities under the FRSA. The training will be incorporated into BNSF’s annual supervisor certification program.
  • Making settlement offers in 36 cases to employees who filed whistleblower complaints with OSHA alleging they were harmed by one or more of the company’s previous policies.

Between August 2007, when OSHA was assigned responsibility for whistleblower complaints under FRSA, and September 2012, OSHA received 1,206 FRSA whistleblower complaints. The number of FRSA whistleblower complaints that OSHA currently receives surpasses the number of whistleblower complaints that OSHA receives under any of the other 21 whistleblower protection statutes it enforces except for Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. More than 60 percent of the FRSA complaints filed with OSHA involve an allegation that a railroad worker has been retaliated against for reporting an on-the-job injury.

“Protecting America’s railroad workers who report on-the-job injuries from retaliation is an essential element in OSHA’s mission. This accord makes significant progress toward ensuring that BNSF employees who report injuries do not suffer any adverse consequences for doing so,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels. “It also sets the tone for other railroad employers throughout the U.S. to take steps to ensure that their workers are not harassed, intimidated or terminated, in whole or part, for reporting workplace injuries.”

“Ensuring that employees can report injuries or illnesses without fear of retaliation is crucial to protecting worker safety and health,” said Michaels. “If employees do not feel free to report injuries or illnesses, the employer’s entire workforce is put at risk because employers do not learn of and correct dangerous conditions that have resulted in injuries.”   Read the News Release.

For Help With Investigations, Policy Updates Or Other Needs

If you need help in conducting a risk assessment of or responding to an IRS, DOL, Justice Department, or other federal or state agencies or other private plaintiff or other legal challenges to your organization’s existing workforce classification or other labor and employment, compliance,  employee benefit or compensation practices, please contact the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer here or at (469) 767-8872 .

Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, management attorney and consultant Ms. Stamer is nationally and internationally recognized for more than 23 years of work helping employers; employee benefit plans and their sponsors, administrators, fiduciaries; employee leasing, recruiting, staffing and other professional employment organizations; and others design, administer and defend innovative workforce, compensation, employee benefit  and management policies and practices. The Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Committee, a Council Representative on the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits, Government Affairs Committee Legislative Chair for the Dallas Human Resources Management Association, past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, Ms. Stamer often has worked, extensively on these and other workforce and performance related matters.   She also is recognized for her publications, industry leadership, workshops and presentations on these and other human resources concerns and regularly speaks and conducts training on these matters. Her insights on these and other matters appear in the Bureau of National Affairs, Spencer Publications, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Business Journal, the Houston Business Journal, and many other national and local publications. For more information about Ms. Stamer and her experience or to get access to other publications by Ms. Stamer see here or contact Ms. Stamer directly. 

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