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Could Cussing Out Your Employee Get You Sued… By OSHA?

April 16 - Posted at 2:02 PM Tagged: , , , , , , , , ,

You may be already aware of the continuing escalation of all forms of whistleblower and retaliation claims, including the 20+ Anti-Retaliation laws enforced by special investigators from OSHA’s Whistleblower group.  


On one of OSHA’s recent news releases, they state that the Labor Department filed a federal lawsuit against Duane Thomas Marine Construction and its owner Duane Thomas for terminating an employee who reported workplace violence, which is a violation of Section 11© of the OSH Act.  OSHA asserts the employer fired an employee for complaining about unsafe work conditions. It may seem a bit unusual to hear that the alleged unsafe conditions involved fear of workplace violence, but who can blame an employee in today’s current environment. However, as it turns out the hazard the employee complained about was the owner!


The employee alleged that, on numerous occasions between 2009 and 2011, Mr. Thomas committed workplace violence and created hostile working conditions. He allegedly behaved abusively, make inappropriate sexual comments and advanced, yelled, screamed, and made physically threatening gestures, in addition to withholding the employee’s paycheck.


The employee, who worked directly for Mr. Thomas, reported to him that he was creating hostile conditions. On Feb 25, 2011, the employee filed a timely whistleblower compliant with OSHA alleging discrimination by Thomas for having reported the conditions to him.


On March 28, Thomas received notification of the complaint filing. Five days later, Thomas had computer passwords changed  to deny the employee remote access to files and then terminated the employee. OSHA’s subsequent investigation found merit to the employee’s compliant.


OSHA is seeking back wages, interest, and compensatory and punitive damages, as well as front pay in lieu of reinstatement for the employee. Additionally, OSHA seeks to have the employee’s personnel records expunged with respect to the matters at issue in this case and bar the employer against future violations of the OSH Act. Wow…. but the usual warning: we may not know all of the facts.


The employer may have behaved badly and gave the employee  the ability to make out a viable claim. Or, the employee may have exaggerated, or even made up the whole thing. But while most employee lawsuits are notorious for not being completely accurate, there must be at least some pretty bad facts for OSHA to take the action it did.


This atmosphere may or may not have presented a valid safety hazard, but guess what? Under the law, the violation is the act of terminating the employee for complaining about a safety concern. And the catch is…the concern does not have to be valid!  Please note there is a different standard if the employee refuses to work because of an unfounded and unreasonable concern.


For all we know, the employee could have annoyed his boss with unfounded complaints until the boss fired him in a moment of anger…but that too is a potential violation.


The take away advice from this scenario is to eliminate two phrases from your vocabulary: “Boys will be boys” and “You had to be there”. The main problem is that lawyers and Uncle Sam will ultimately be there if one’s conduct is foolish enough.


Be sure to train your supervisors to behave professionally regardless of the setting and remind them of the many behaviors, including some of the offbeat ones, that are protected as Whistleblowing.

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