Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘OSHA Whistleblower Protection Program’

OSHA Secures Robust Injunctive Relief for Whistleblower

Monday, May 18th, 2015

jason zuckermanOn May 7, 2015, OSHA obtained a preliminary injunction in a Section 11(c) whistleblower case barring Lear Corporation from further retaliating against the whistleblower, Kimberly King. The injunction is a significant win for whistleblowers because the court’s order broadly construes the scope of protected whistleblowing to include disclosures to the media, and it signals OSHA’s stepped up enforcement of whistleblower protection laws.

Kimberly King worked for Lear Corporation at a plant in Alabama that produces foam cushions that are used in car seats and headrests. King raised concerns about the health effects of exposure to a chemical called toluene diisocyanate (“TDI”).   Based on internal tests and tests conducted by OSHA, Lear concluded that TDI levels were within legal limits. King, however, remained concerned that she developed asthma because of her exposure to elevated TDI levels at the plant, and King shared her concerns with media outlets. An article on nbcnews.com described how TDI and other workplace chemicals correlate with certain respiratory conditions like asthma, and the article cited a physician who concluded that King is in the top 25 percent in terms of the levels of isocyanate antibodies in her blood.  King also participated in a YouTube video accusing Lear of exposing employees to TDI.

Lear suspended King and another employee from work without pay for participating in the video on the ground that King should have known that the plant was not exposing employees to elevated levels of TDI.   In addition, Lear demanded that King recant her statements to the media. King continued to raise her concerns by going to Hyundai in March 2015 to deliver a letter asking it to fix the conditions at the plant. Lear then suspended King for seven days without pay, and upon King’s return, Lear terminated her employment and sued her for defamation and interference with business relations.

After an evidentiary hearing, Judge Callie V.S. Granade concluded that King’s participation in the YouTube video, her disclosures to the press, and her disclosures to OSHA constitute protected activity. In addition, she issued an order providing broad preliminary relief, including:

  • enjoining Defendants from terminating, suspending, harassing, suing, threatening, intimidating, or taking any other discriminatory or retaliatory action against any current or former employee based on Defendants’ belief that such employee exercised any rights he or she may have under the Occupational Safety and Health Act;
  • enjoining Defendants from telling any current or former employee not to speak to or cooperate with representatives of the Secretary of Labor;
  • enjoining Defendants from obstructing any investigation by the Secretary of Labor or its designee; and
  • enjoining Defendants from suing current or former employees because those individuals complained about health and safety or because they engaged in protected activity under the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

In assessing whether OSHA’s injunction serves the public interest (one of prerequisites for granting a preliminary injunction), Judge Granade made a critical observation about the public policy undergirding whistleblower protection laws: “The public retains an interest in safe and healthy workplace environments for all employees, and protecting employees who speak up about perceived dangers in the workplace. This preliminary injunction may also help prevent future violations of section 11(c) and inform current employees of their rights under this section.” This order is a great example of the type of vigorous enforcement required to effectively protect whistleblowers.

About the author: The author’s name is Jason Zuckerman. Jason Zuckerman is Principal at Zuckerman Law (www.zuckermanlaw.com)  and represents whistleblowers nationwide.  He is the author of the Whistleblower Protection Law Blog (www.whistleblower-protection-law.com).

 

Workplace Deaths An Epidemic

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

Tom O'Connor Amid the horrific scenes of the BP oil spill, we should not neglect the fact that 11 workers died on the rig when it exploded April 20. Nor should we neglect the daily carnage that workers suffer on the job in America.

It’s been a very bad couple of months for worker safety: Seven dead in Washington following the explosion of the Tesoro refinery.

Six dead in Connecticut in the Kleen Energy power plant explosion.

Twenty-nine dead in West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch Mine disaster.

And 11 dead in the Gulf of Mexico oil rig collapse.

But behind the headlines on the latest disaster is a far quieter but equally disturbing story.

In the same week as the Massey mine disaster in West Virginia, local media outlets around the country carried dozens of stories with headlines like “Man Killed in Trench Collapse” or “Fall from Roof Fatal.” The toll of these routine incidents _14 deaths a day from injuries in America — is obscured because most occur one death at a time.

Month after month, workers die, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration slaps the employer on the wrist (a median penalty of only $3,675 per death in 2007).

Like those who died on the BP oil rig or in the Massey mine, the vast majority of deaths on the job are entirely preventable. The problem is not technical but political: Our national system for ensuring health and safety in the workplace is broken.

We know how to prevent trenches from collapsing — by using trench boxes to shore them up. We know how to prevent falls from roofs from becoming fatal — by properly using safety harnesses. We know how to prevent coal mine explosions by minimizing the buildup of coal dust and monitoring methane concentrations.

But employers routinely refuse to use these established precautions, and OSHA does not force them to.

So why aren’t our laws enforced? First, it’s a problem of resources: OSHA’s budget for enforcement is pitiful, a situation that has worsened since deregulation began in the Reagan era. In the late 1970s, OSHA had one inspector per 30,000 covered workers; today it is one per 60,000.

Second, obstacles to any new workplace safety rules, put in place by deregulation ideologues in Congress, have brought OSHA to a standstill. In the last 13 years, OSHA has issued exactly one new health standard establishing the maximum safe exposure level to a chemical, and that under the duress of a court order.

Third, OSHA’s promise that all workers have the right to speak up about unsafe or unhealthy conditions without retaliation is a cruel joke. The agency’s whistleblower protection program is totally ineffective: Non-union workers who file OSHA complaints routinely lose their jobs.

The solutions to this sorry state of affairs are not complex. Congress should boost the budget for OSHA enforcement. Plus, it should protect whistleblowers and require serious penalties for egregious violators.

Under current law, even the worst case of employer neglect can result in no more than a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum six months in jail. That’s got to change.

There is a bill sitting in Congress that would accomplish much of this. But the Protecting America’s Workers Act is stalled in committee while Congress members pound their fists and demand “something be done.” Now is the time for action, before more workers die.

Reprinted with permission by The Progressive, Inc.

About The Author: Tom O’Connor is executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.

Health Care Reform Bill Creates New Whistleblower Protections

Friday, March 26th, 2010

jason zuckermanThe Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2009 (H.R. 3590) that the House approved on March 21, 2010, creates new whistleblower protections for health care workers and strengthens the coverage of the False Claims Act.  The following is a summary of these provisions and the text of the relevant sections is available here.

Section 1558:  Health care worker whistleblower protections added to the Fair Labor Standards Act.  Section 1558 prohibits retaliation against an employee who provides or is about to provide to an employer, Federal Government, or a state Attorney General, information that the employee reasonably believes to be a violation of Title I of the Bill.  The provision also protects individuals who participate in investigations or object to or refuse to participate in any activity that the employee reasonably believes to be a violation of Title I of the bill.   Title I contains a wide range of rules governing health insurance, including a prohibition against denying coverage based upon preexisting conditions, policy and financial reporting requirements and prohibitions against discrimination based upon an individual’s receipt of health insurance subsidies.  Accordingly, Section 1558 will likely protect a broad range of disclosures.

The procedures, burden of proof, and remedies applicable to this new retaliation claim are set forth in the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, 15 U.S.C. 2087(b), including (1) a 180-day statute of limitations; (2) a requirement to initially file the complaint with OSHA, which will investigate the complaint and can order preliminary reinstatement; (3) the option to litigate the claim before the Department of Labor Office of Administrative Law Judges or to remove the claim to federal court 210 days after filing the complaint; (4) the right to try the claim in federal court before a jury;  and (5) a broad range of remedies, including reinstatement, back pay, special damages, and attorney’s fees.  Similar to Section 806 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the causation standard and the burden-shifting framework are very favorable to employees.

A complainant can prevail merely by showing by a preponderance of the evidence that her  protected activity was a contributing factor in the unfavorable action.  A contributing factor is “any factor which, alone or in connection with other factors, tends to affect in any way the outcome of the decision.”  Once a complainant meets her burden by a preponderance of the evidence, the employer can avoid liability only if it proves by clear and convincing evidence that it would have taken the same action in the absence of the employee engaging in protected conduct, an onerous burden.

Section 6703(b)(3):  Protections for employees of federally funded long-term care facilities.  Long-term care facilities that receive more than $10,000 in federal funding in the preceding year must notify all officers, employees, managers, and contractors of the facility that they are required by law to report any reasonable suspicion of a crime to at least one law enforcement agency.  Failure to report a suspected crime can expose an employee, manager, or contractor to civil fines of up to $200,000.  A long-term care facility is prohibited from engaging in retaliation against an employee “because of lawful acts done by the employee.”  Facilities violating the anti-retaliation provision may be subject to a fine of up to $200,000 and exclusion from federal funds for up to two years.

Section 6105:  Implementation of standardized complaint forms for nursing homes and prohibition against retaliation.  Section 6105 requires nursing homes to implement a standardized complaint form and requires each state to develop a complaint resolution process to track and investigate complaints and to ensure that complainants are not subjected to retaliation.

Section 10104(j)(2) expands the definition of an “original source” under the False Claims Act.  Section 10104(j)(2) strikes 31 U.S.C. 3730(e)(4)(A) and replaces it with language expanding the definition of an “original source” to include “individual who either (i) prior to a public disclosure under subsection (e)(4)(a), has voluntarily disclosed to the Government the information on which allegations or transactions in a claim are based, or (2) who has knowledge that is independent of and materially adds to the publicly disclosed allegations or transactions, and who has voluntarily provided the information to the Government before filing an action under this section.”  This new definition of “original source” will bring much-need uniformity to this critical issue that arises in most qui tam actions and increase the likelihood that relators will be able to meet the original source exception to the public disclosure bar.

*This post originally appeared in Employment Law Group on March 23, 2010. Reprinted with permission from the author.

 

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