My May 2013 EHS Today article (with William Friedman), “Whistleblower Complaints: Avoiding Discrimination Charges through Documentation,” urged that to avoid expensive OSHA charges that one discriminated against an employee for making safety complaints, employers should “consistently” follow their progressive disciplinary program. The article warned, “OSHA will exploit any inconsistency to impugn your motives.”

That is just what happened in Perez v. Clearwater Paper Corp., 25 BNA OSHC 1990 (D. Idaho 2016), where OSHA accused the company of firing an employee for making a complaint to OSHA. A federal district judge awarded the employee almost $235,000 in back pay, emotional distress damages and punitive damages.

The company had a union contract with a progressive disciplinary policy. It stated that discipline would become more intense as misbehaviors occurred, progressing from oral warning to written warning to final warning and then termination. The policy had a narrow exception permitting immediate firing for “gross misconduct” such as “insubordination,” “theft” and “sabotage.”

The problem was that the policy was not followed. Because the fired employee had never been the subject of any discipline or even negative evaluations before he was fired, the court reasoned that his supposed misconduct could not have amounted to “gross misconduct” and thus could not have been the real reason for his being fired. Other conduct to which the company pointed was similarly rejected, for they “had never been used to discipline employees in the past” and thus were a “pretext.”

For example, the company claimed that the employee had been insubordinate. The court pointed to the company’s inconsistency in administering its progressive disciplinary policy: “If insubordination is such a critical flaw that it justifies being fired on the spot, it stands to reason that [the employee] would have at least been disciplined or written up for past incidents of insubordination or disrespect for management. But that never happened.”

As to the employee’s supposedly “confrontational attitude and annoying self-righteousness,” the court observed that “these are just the sort of entangled characteristics that progressive discipline was designed to unravel and straighten out. That [the company] did not subject [the employee] to progressive discipline signals that [the employee] was fired for some [other] reason…”

Finally, the court brushed aside the employer’s claim that, even if its motive had been tainted by the employee’s complaint to OSHA, it would have fired him for other conduct anyway. The court found that the company would “[a]t most … have run [the employee] through the progressive discipline system, but would not have fired him.”

The lessons for employers should again be clear; to avoid OSHA citations, it is not enough to show that you trained employees in safety rules and monitored their work. You must show that the rules are enforced by discipline that progresses as infractions recur.

To show this, you must have documentation that is retrievable and shows that your program is carried out in practice. And to insulate yourself against both OSHA citations and OSHA discrimination charges, you must actually follow your progressive disciplinary system with consistency.

Arthur G. Sapper is senior counsel in the Workplace Safety and Health Practice Group at Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C.’s Washington, D.C., office. He is a former deputy general counsel of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission and a former professor of OSHA law. He has participated in numerous investigations and cases involving OSHA discrimination and safety complaints, and can be reached at 202-263-0270 or art.sapper@ogletreedeakins.com.