OSHA goes after Ohio Bell for punishing injured workers

CLEVELAND (PAI) – On Jan. 4, 2012, Todd Fensel, a customer service specialist for Ohio Bell, went out in the snow to check his truck.  He slipped on black ice and got hurt on the job.  Now, as a result, his name’s in a court case.

Snow covered the black ice and when Fensel slipped, he reached out to grab his truck to break his fall – and sprained his shoulder.  He reported the fall to his Ohio Bell supervisor the next day, and to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration‘s hotline for workers to report on-the-job injuries. 

Ohio Bell, an AT&T subsidiary, investigated and, one month later, suspended Fensel for a day without pay.  He’s not alone.  Here are three more examples:

  • John Parente, a customer service specialist at Ohio Bell’s Brooklyn Heights plant, missed the last rung coming down a ladder in December 2011. He fell, crashed into a metal conduit box, fractured a rib and was out for six weeks. Though “no safety rule or” section of Ohio Bell ladder policy “was cited,” the lawsuit says, Ohio Bell suspended Parente for a day without pay, too – three months later.
  • A dog bit Larry Locy, a customer service specialist in Columbus, while Locy was working in an alley in August 2012. He got his rabies shot and didn’t miss any work – until Ohio Bell hit him with a one-day unpaid suspension.
  • Eric Adams, a premises tech, came to a Columbus customer’s house in January 2013 to install a phone line. He climbed the wooden stairs, stepped on a piece of clothing and slipped and fell. Result: Bruises, contusions, a report to OSHA and, after a company investigation, yet another one-day suspension without pay.

After 13 such “blame the victim” suspensions without pay of workers who reported on-the-job injuries, the agency had had it.  It’s suing Ohio Bell in federal court in Cleveland for breaking federal law designed to protect whistleblowers.

The Ohio Bell case is one more example of how companies mistreat workers and then lie about it, especially where job safety and health is concerned.  And such lies and intimidation are not uncommon, says AFL-CIO Safety and Health Director Peg Seminario, a 30-year veteran of the field.

It’s also intimidating, she adds.

Now, however, the government may be moving beyond just lawsuits, especially since even if it beats Ohio Bell in court, the OSHA fines are small. Instead, the federal job safety agencies, OSHA and the Mine Safety and Health Administration, are exchanging information about new rules to protect the whistleblowers and prevent the firms from intimidating them.

Joseph Main, the Mine Safety and Health Administrator , whose agency is OSHA’s counterpart for the nation’s coal mines and other mines, is drafting a memo about potential regulations against companies to stop such retaliation before it starts.

Meanwhile, OSHA is really pissed off at Ohio Bell, especially when it disciplines workers for reporting on-the-job injuries that would be considered under the Yiddish term pitsilach – “little things.”

“It is against the law for employers to discipline or suspend employees for reporting injuries,” said Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, when his agency sued Ohio Bell on Feb. 10.

In several instances where Ohio Bell blamed the worker, the company said he violated its job safety standards, especially when around ladders. The court papers laconically note that Ohio Bell had no safety standards for workers around ladders.

“AT&T must understand that by discouraging workers from reporting injuries, it increases the likelihood of more workers being injured in the future. And the Labor Department will do everything in its power to prevent this type of retaliation,” Michaels added.

Ohio Bell suspended 12 of the whistleblowers for a day each without pay, and suspended the other for three days without pay.  All reported on-the-job injuries. Two of the injuries put the hurt workers out for several months each, but the others put them out a day apiece – if that.  Several immediately returned to work after their accidents.

Five of the workers the company hit were in Columbus, two in Brooklyn Heights, two in Canton and one each in Akron, Cleveland, Gallipolis and Uhrichsville.

“The company alleged each employee violated a corporate workplace safety standard; however, OSHA’s investigation found the suspensions were a result of workers reporting their injuries.”

Photo: A lineman changes a transformer. Wikipedia (CC)


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.