OSHA Suit Linked to Bullying

osha-logoThe U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has initiated what appears to be one of its first – if not its first – lawsuit involving  workplace bullying.

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) filed the lawsuit earlier this month against a Fort Lauderdale business owner who fired a worker after the worker complained to OSHA that the worker was subjected to discrimination because he complained about hostile workplace conditions at the company.

According to an OSHA press release, Duane Thomas Marine Construction LLC and its owner, Duane Thomas, are charged with terminating the worker in violation of Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act).  Section 11 (c)  prohibits discriminating against any employee because the employee has filed a complaint related to the OSH Act or has exercised a right  afforded by the Act.  The employee was not identified by OSHA.

The case  involves what appears to be essentially a campaign of workplace bullying.

The OSHA press release states the employee complained that Thomas on numerous occasions between Dec. 9, 2009 and Feb. 25, 2011 “committed workplace violence and created hostile working conditions. He allegedly behaved abusively, made inappropriate sexual comments and advances, yelled, screamed and made physically threatening gestures, in addition to withholding the employee’s paycheck.”   The employee worked directly for Thomas at the company’s custom marine dock installation services site on Marco Island.

The case is significant because the General Duty Clause of the OSH Act requires employers to provide safe and healthful workplaces for their employees.  However, OSHA has not shown any leadership with respect to workplace bullying, even  though overwhelming research shows that workplace bullying causes potentially serious short and long-term health consequences.  OSHA typically enforces safety standards that relate to traditional industrial hazards, such as high noise levels, chemical exposure, electrical or fall hazards, etc.

Shortly after Thomas was notified of the OSHA complaint, OSHA states that Thomas  had the company’s computer passwords changed to deny the employee remote access to files and then terminated the employee.

The lawsuit seeks back wages, interest, and compensatory and punitive damages, as well as front pay in lieu of reinstatement. Additionally, it seeks to have the employee’s personnel records expunged with respect to the matters at issue in the case and to bar the employer from committing  future violations of the OSH Act.

Teresa Harrison, OSHA’s acting regional administrator in Atlanta, said, “Employees have the right to raise workplace violence concerns without fear of retaliation.”

The lawsuit, Solis v. Duane Thomas Marine Construction LLC and Duane Thomas, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Fort Myers Division.

Employees who believe that they have been retaliated against for engaging in protected conduct may file a complaint with the Secretary of Labor requesting  an investigation by OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program.   The  program enforces the whistleblower provisions of more than 20 statutes protecting employees who report violations of various workplace safety, airline, commercial motor carrier, consumer product, environmental, financial reform, food safety, health insurance reform, motor vehicle safety, nuclear, pipeline, public transportation agency, railroad, maritime, and securities laws. Rights afforded by these whistleblower acts include, but are not limited to, worker participation in safety and health activities, reporting a work related injury, illness or fatality, or reporting a violation of the statutes.

Getting Fired

FIRED!

The capstone of a campaign  of workplace abuse and bullying is often termination from the job.

 And that reality  – or even the fear of being fired  – can be a devastating blow to a worker who has endured months of  abuse that has stripped away his or her sense of mental and physical well-being.

 But today what does it really mean to be fired?

 I know business leaders who were fired  and recovered to achieve impressive new success.

 Sallie Krawcheck, past president of Merrill Lynch, US Trust, Smith Barney, the largest wealth management business in the world, suggests that if you don’t get fired at least once, maybe you’re not trying hard enough?

 She says that as the pace of change in business increases, the chances of having a placid career are receding. And if in this period of rapid change, you’re not making some notable mistakes along the way, you’re certainly not taking enough business and career chances.

 Being fired is not always a reflection of performance.

Research shows that some targets of workplace bullying are dismissed because they are creative, hard-working and well-liked employees who are seen as a threat by a supervisor or co-worker. They may be among the best in their workplace and that is why they are targeted.

 I also know bureaucrats (and I use that term  in the worst sense of the word)  who should be fired but probably never will be, despite their obvious incompetence.  They have managed to insinuate themselves into secure positions, by surrounding themselves with synchophants and/or by avoiding any personal responsibility for anything, except to claim success for others’ work.

Many  employees are fired because  a new supervisor wants to put in his or her own team in place or the worker’s values or vision don’t  comport with that of  the supervisor.

Many workers are fired for illegal reasons –  they are victim of discrimination on the basis of  age, sex, race, religion, etc.  Some are fired because they asked for a legal right – such as the right to be paid overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

 So if you were fired in the past year or expect to be in the year ahead, try to  keep it in perspective. Any employee who was fired can likely think of some things that they could have done better.  Hindsight is 50-50.  Nobody’s perfect.  Etc.   Hopefully, your new and hard-earned  knowledge will help you succeed the next time?

 Ms. Krawcheck also advises:

 I  had a friend tell me shortly after I left “When something like this happens, you think you’re thinking straight, but you’re not. You won’t think straight for at least three months.” If you have the luxury of avoiding any major career decisions that long, the perspective you gain after decompressing can be valuable.