In February of 2008, a safety specialist employed by the U.S. Postal Service told a coworker she could call the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to report that something at the USPS facility was making her physically ill. He then told his managers about this interaction, believing he had done nothing wrong. To his surprise, his employer turned on him.
Over the ensuing six years, he was repeatedly and very publicly punished for having the temerity to stand up for workplace safety. He was summarily demoted, transferred to a different facility, assigned menial work, harassed in a series of investigative interviews, issued a disciplinary letter, denied a promotion, forced to take a position hundreds of miles from his home and subjected to pervasive hostility on the job.
When this Postal Service employee told his coworker she had rights under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, including the right to contact OSHA, he was fulfilling a key element of the arrangement Congress made to protect American workers. His reward was years of harassment and misery.
American workplaces would be far more dangerous if employees did not come forward with their safety and health concerns. OSHA employs about 8,000 inspectors to help ensure workers return home alive. Without regular employees standing up for their safety (and the safety of others), OSHA is spread too thin to reach all workers.
In February of 2012 we filed suit against the Postal Service. After a weeklong trial in late 2014, in which the safety specialist finally got his day in court to tell the judge and the public about the array of punishments he suffered, a federal judge in Washington ruled in his favor.
It is no exaggeration to describe my team as yelling with joy as much as the employee did.
The judge ruled that the Postal Service owed him more than $229,000 in economic losses and for the emotional distress. The judge also ordered the Postal Service to promote him, and to make the unlawful harassment known to the workers that the safety specialist had worked to protect. Furthermore, the judge also issued a court order prohibiting the Postal Service from retaliating against other employees for standing up for health and safety in any of the facilities where he worked.
This decision sends a powerful message to employers: retaliation for striving for a safe workplace will not be tolerated. On behalf of workers everywhere, our hero refused to sit down and let occupational safety and health rights be trampled. For that and for much more: THANK YOU!
Janet Herold is the regional solicitor for the Labor Department in San Francisco.
Editor’s note: If you believe you have been retaliated against for reporting safety or health concerns in your workplace, file a complaint online or call OSHA today at 1-800-321-OSHA (6742).