Employment Law Blog

News, trends and analysis in employment law and HR

Feb 06, 2014

Even inaccurate safety complaints by truck driver protected

Safety and Health 

A commercial truck driver who was fired after raising safety concerns and inaccurately reporting a mechanic’s assessment of his truck can take his case to trial, ruled the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

A commercial truck driver who was fired after raising safety concerns and inaccurately reporting a mechanic’s assessment of his truck can take his case to trial, ruled the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. The driver refused to drive a semi-dump truck whose tail pan was caked in asphalt, and complained that another truck’s steering pulled hard to the left. A mechanic identified two possible causes of the steering problem, and when the driver merged the two in his description to the employer, he was fired for filing a false report. The court said that even if his safety report was inaccurate, he was protected from retaliation as long as he had a reasonable and good faith belief that he was reporting a violation of safety standards. The Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA) protects employees who refuse to operate commercial motor vehicles when they have “a reasonable apprehension of serious injury to the employee or the public because of the vehicle’s hazardous safety or security condition.” The court said the driver produced enough evidence of his sincerity and the seriousness of his concerns to ask a jury to decide whether the company illegally fired him for making safety complaints (Gaines v. K-Five Construction Corp., 7th Cir, Jan. 2014).

Tips: If employees are disciplined or terminated for refusing to drive because of reasonable safety concerns, they can complain to OSHA. Recently, OSHA ordered a Washington-based motor carrier to compensate a trucker who was suspended and then fired when he said he shouldn’t be behind the wheel because he was sick and taking narcotic cold medication.

The good news for motor carrier employers under the STAA is that drivers must bring their concerns to the attention of the employer. A driver’s continued refusal to operate a commercial motor vehicle is justified only if you as the employer fail to correct the unsafe conditions. This gives you an opportunity to investigate and address the concerns. If you disagree with the employee’s assessment, you should do your best to document the actual condition (this might even include photographs), explain your perspective to the employee, and listen to any counterarguments. If the employee’s fears are reasonable, then even if you have a different opinion, you should explore options for addressing those concerns.

Comments