As Americans celebrate Labor Day, some people view the day as an end to summer, engaging with family and friends at the pool and hosting barbecues.
While Labor Day for many simply represents a day off work, it was established as a federal holiday in 1894 as a tribute to the contributions of American workers, including advocates who fought for workers’ rights over the years.
One of those critical worker rights includes workplace health and safety, enforced by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational and Safety Health Administration. Under the law, employees have a right to a safe and healthy work environment and be free from retaliation for raising workplace safety concerns.
My father recently told the story of his father, who died in his early 60s likely due to workplace hazards. He described how my grandfather would come home from work in the factory, covered in black soot from head to toe. In those days, workplace safety was not a priority for workers.
Unfortunately, a recent case from the Department of Labor is a stark reminder that in 2019, workers still fight for their right to a safe and healthy workplace.
In August, a federal judge ordered a Pennsylvania manufacturer to pay $1.04 million to two employees who were terminated for assisting in a safety investigation.
According to the Labor Department, the judge ordered the award after a jury determined in April that the company and its owner fired two employees in retaliation for their participation in a federal safety investigation. OSHA initiated the investigation after an employee suffered an amputation of three fingers.
The company fired one of the employees after OSHA began its onsite investigation. The second employee was allegedly terminated after OSHA issued citations and assessed the company with penalties.
The judge awarded $500,000 in punitive damages, which the Labor Department said is the largest punitive award ever awarded under the retaliation provisions of the law. The judge said the award was justified because of the company’s “deliberative flouting of the act.”
The judge also awarded the two employees nearly $550,000 in front and back pay, prejudgment interest and additional amounts to take into account the large tax consequences of receiving a high one-time payment. The judge also enjoined the company from engaging in retaliation.
“The court recognized that all employees have a federally protected right to speak out against unsafe and unhealthy working conditions, to participate in U.S. Department of Labor investigations, and to be compensated if they are terminated in retaliation for exercising those rights,” Regional Solicitor Oscar L. Hampton III said in a statement.
Hampton noted the significance of punitive damages, which are designed to address intentional misconduct and punish the perpetrator.
OSHA provides critical rights to employees. Instead of retaliating against them for raising workplace concerns, employers should be grateful to their employees who point out violations.
Regardless of the industry, employers should set clear expectations for safety and health and support OSHA in promoting these important initiatives.
Information about worker rights and employer obligation under OSHA can be found at http://www.osha.gov.