Discipline an Employee for Breaking a Safety Rule? – The US Department of Labor May have Something to Say About That.

safety first?

Top Posts of 2014: #8It seems like a pretty simple concept: you break a safety rule (even if you are the injured party) and you can be disciplined. Many firms have used this process for years to enforce rules to keep their employees safe while at work. A recent lawsuit filed by the US Department of Labor could, however, change the way your company handles safety rule violations.

On February 10, the U.S. Department of Labor filed a lawsuit against the Ohio Bell Telephone Company (AT&T) on behalf of 13 injured workers who were given safety rule-related job suspensions in the years 2011 to 2013. The unpaid suspensions were from one to three days according to the suit filed by the Department of Labor.

The employer contends that the suspensions were a result of accident investigations that showed that the injured employee violated corporate workplace safety standards

Applying Whistleblower Protections

The US Department of Labor and OSHA contend that under the federal Whistleblower Protection Program, Ohio Bell (AT&T) retaliated against the employees for reporting a workplace injury – including their own injuries. “It is against the law for employers to discipline or suspend employees for reporting injuries,” said Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health. AT&T contends that the suit is without merit.

The outcome of this case could affect how companies discipline workers who injure themselves due to an alleged violation of corporate safety policies—possibly increasing the likelihood of more workers being injured in the future.

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration also just made it easier than ever to lodge a complaint against an employer, with a new online reporting option. With promises of lump sum back pay and punitive damages being given to a reporting party under the Whistleblower Protection Program and the position taken by the DOL thus far in the AT&T suit, could the days of being held accountable for safety rules be over?

This post was originally published February 21, 2014.

About David Barry

David Barry is the national technical director for Casualty Risk Control, where he provides risk control consulting…
Categories: Claim & Risk Control | Tags: , , ,

2 Responses to Discipline an Employee for Breaking a Safety Rule? – The US Department of Labor May have Something to Say About That.

  1. Ron Cross says:

    I called the DOL about this and was sent the case file. These 13 employees were punished for unsafe acts such as slipping on wet grass, on black ice, missed the last rung of a ladder, while carrying a ladder an employee stepped in a drain hole and strained his back, etc. You can look up the rest. In most cases, AT&T did not investigate the incident for a month. AT&T could not show enforcement of non-injured employees doing the same acts. Based on the case file 1:14-cv-00269-DCN #1 File 02/10/14, I feel the DOL was justified. When I asked if I had 5 people doing the same unsafe act at different times and one was injuried, if I punished all 5 for the same or similar acts at the time of the act, would I be in violation and was told no. We are allowed to enforce our safety programs. BUT, we cannot single out injured employees for disciplinary action.

    • David Barry says:

      It Will be interesting to see how this plays out in the courts. I am sure that AT&T has a much different story than the DOL, and feels that they are well within their rights to discipline employees that they feel have been injured by breaking safety rules. Stay tuned for updates as this moves along the judicial process.

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