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OSHA claims workers' rights violated by AT&T policy

Retaliation against an employee who reports workplace injuries is a violation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act with respect to its whistleblower provisions. In most states, including Colorado, it is also a violation of workers’ rights under state laws for the employer to terminate or discipline an employee for reporting a workplace injury. This is a an important rule whose violation can challenge the very heart of the workers’ compensation statutory framework of benefits.

The U.S. Department of Labor announced on May 15 that it filed a lawsuit against AT&T for violating the OSHA law. The agency claims that the communications giant disciplined or gave unsatisfactory work reviews to four workers who reported workplace injuries. Each of the four was located at a different location or AT&T office, under the Southwestern Bell Telephone name.

The employees are located in Missouri and Kansas. The action was filed in a federal court in Missouri. Such retaliation is a violation of the whistleblower provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. The company denied the charges, saying that the workers had each violated safety regulations. A closer look reveals that each person was disciplined for reasons dealing with the injury after they returned to work.

For example, the company said that one employee who injured his knee was at fault for the injury and his performance appraisal was lowered accordingly. One basic problem with that kind of faulty thinking is that the workers’ compensation laws make fault irrelevant. A worker is legally entitled to benefits, including compensation for disability, regardless of fault.

That basic fact makes it against workers’ rights for a worker to be disciplined for fault in an accident at work. In Colorado and other states, the whole environment and purpose surrounding the workers’ compensation system would come into doubt and confusion if workers were disciplined over the occurrence of a compensable workplace accident. One direct and unacceptable result would be the influence on the worker to not report the injury. Furthermore, OSHA insisted that its investigation indicated that the discipline was in each case for getting injured and not for safety violations.

Source: The Wichita Eagle, "Labor Department sues AT&T, alleging retaliation for employees reporting injuries", Jerry Siebenmark, May 15, 2014

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