By Brent I. Clark and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recently released its results from a study conducted in 2016 and 2017 that looked at safety programs developed to prevent motor vehicle crashes.

The study included four focus groups conducted with thirty-three managers of employees that drive for work. The managers represented small businesses across four motor vehicle user groups: (1) first responders, (2) oil and gas workers, (3) light-vehicle drivers (e.g., workers who operate passenger vehicles for a variety of work purposes, such as salespeople, home health care workers, realtors, and food delivery workers), and (4) truck drivers.

NIOSH, in its Science Blog, related that vehicle crashes were a leading cause of workplace fatalities, with “1,252 deaths of vehicle drivers and passengers on public roads in 2016. In 2013, on-the-job crashes cost employers over $25 billion and led to 155,000 lost work days.”

The study found that the managers of truck and light vehicle drivers noted a range of minimal approaches to safety, such as mandatory vehicle inspections. Of particular note on the topic of the effectiveness of training is that managers indicated that safety materials needed to be designed that take into account the limited time that they and their drivers can devote to safety training. “Drivers’ varied work schedules and intense workload limit opportunities for group discussions about roadway safety. Managers said they and their drivers prefer concise, highly visual, and interactive communication products, such as short videos and simulations.”

NIOSH concluded that despite the human and financial costs of crashes, safety programs developed to prevent motor vehicle crashes are unlikely to work unless they are designed with the employers’ needs and constraints in mind. “This is particularly true among smaller and midsize employers, which need additional resources and knowledge to be successful.”

For employers, it is important to have safety programs in place that protect company employees. Employers can be sure that, given a workplace accident, agency inspectors may well be reviewing the employer’s policy documents and training materials, and will likely interview the injured employee about her training and understanding of the materials.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the OSHA Compliance, Enforcement & Litigation Team.

By Benjamin D. Briggs, Adam R. Young, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Tenth Circuit held that a trucking company unlawfully retaliated against a truck driver after he abandoned a trailer on a public highway, finding that his actions constituted a protected refusal to operate a vehicle in unsafe conditions.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals denied a petition for review of a retaliation finding by the Administrative Review Board (ARB), finding that the employee had been retaliated against in violation of the Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA). TransAm Trucking, Inc. v. Department of Labor, No. 15-9504 (Tenth Circuit August 8, 2016),

The Court explained that the driver parked a tractor-trailer on the shoulder of an interstate highway. After sitting in sub-freezing temperatures, the brake lines on the trailer froze and rendered the trailer immobile. When a service vehicle failed to arrive and the driver’s heating unit stopped functioning, the driver detached the trailer and drove away in the tractor.

After his termination, the employee filed a whistleblower complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), an agency within the Department of Labor (DOL) that administers STAA claims, asserting that the employer violated the whistleblower provisions of the STAA when it discharged him. After OSHA dismissed the driver’s complaint, the employee requested a hearing before a DOL administrative law judge (ALJ).

The employer argued that the driver’s actions were not protected under the STAA, which only creates a whistleblower claim for an employee who “refuses to operate a vehicle because … the employee has a reasonable apprehension of serious injury to the employee or the public because of the vehicle’s hazardous safety or security condition,” 49 U.S.C. § 31105(a)(1)(B)(ii). Because the trailer was inoperable and the driver drove off without it, the employer argued that the driver could not have refused to “operate” in unsafe conditions; but, rather, he abandoned company property.

The ALJ concluded that the driver had engaged in protected activity when he reported the frozen brake issue to the employer, and again when he refused to obey the instruction to drive the truck while pulling the trailer. The ALJ further concluded that the protected activity was a contributing factor in the employer’s decision to terminate his employment because his refusal to operate the truck while pulling the trailer was “inextricably intertwined” with the employer’s decision to terminate him for abandoning the trailer at the side of the highway. The employer appealed to the DOL Administrative Review Board (ARB) (which affirmed the ALJ’s decision) and then to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In denying the employer’s appeal, the Tenth Circuit noted that the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) “standard of review is narrow and highly deferential to the agency.” Compass Envtl., Inc., v. Occupational Safety & Health Review Comm’n, 663 F.3d 1164, 1167 (10th Cir. 2011).  The Court concluded that the driver had refused to operate the vehicle when he left the trailer behind.  Consequently, the Court upheld the ARB decision and ordered the driver to be reinstated with backpay.

This case should remind employers that the DOL takes an expansive view of the whistleblower statutes enforced by OSHA, and the kind of actions that constitute protected activity under those statutes. In this case, the employer advanced a seemingly non-retaliatory reason for the termination — abandonment of company property — as the reason for the challenged decision.  However, the close connection between the trailer abandonment and the report that the brakes had frozen/refusal to pull the trailer was enough to tip the scales in the employee’s favor.  Employers should exercise extreme caution when making employment decisions under circumstances in which a legitimate reason for discipline bears a close relationship to conduct that may constitute protected activity under a whistleblower statute.

OSHA enforces the whistleblower provisions of twenty-two statutes protecting employees who report violations of various workplace, commercial motor vehicle, airline, nuclear, pipeline, environmental, railroad, public transportation, maritime, consumer product, motor vehicle safety, health care reform, corporate securities, food safety, and consumer financial reform regulations. For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Whistleblower Team or the OSHA Compliance, Enforcement & Litigation Team.