OSHA sues RockTenn for violating whistleblower protection provisions, alleges management at the company's Fernandina Beach, Florida, plant retaliated against employee for raising safety concerns

FERNANDINA BEACH, Florida , November 30, 2011 (press release) – The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration has sued RockTenn Corp. for an alleged violation of the whistleblower provisions of Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act at its Fernandina Beach plant, formerly owned by Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. The lawsuit alleges that management retaliated against an employee for raising safety concerns to company management.

The department's lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Jacksonville Division, asks the court to issue an order with remedies that include reinstating full benefits to the employee as well as paying back wages, punitive and compensatory damages; expunging the employee's personnel records with respect to the matters at issue in this case; and granting any other appropriate relief. The suit also requests a permanent injunction against future violations of this law by the employer.

"Employees have the congressionally-mandated right to engage in safety-related matters at their workplace, including participating in accident investigations and contacting OSHA at any time," said Teresa Harrison, OSHA's acting regional administrator in Atlanta, Ga. "We will hold employers accountable for limiting or deterring any employee who exercises these rights."

The employee filed a timely whistleblower complaint with OSHA, which conducted an investigation and found that the employee had repeatedly raised safety concerns with Smurfit-Stone Container managers. On June 1, 2009, the employee called the local OSHA office and relayed his continued concerns. The employee was suspended on June 18 and then was terminated on June 23 for allegedly giving inaccurate and untruthful testimony during an internal investigation. OSHA concluded that the company had unlawfully and intentionally terminated the worker's employment for engaging in activity protected by the OSH Act.

Although the employee has been reinstated to the former position by an arbitrator following the filing of a union grievance, the Labor Department filed its suit to fully restore losses that occurred to the employee during the time of separation from the company, which was a period of 22 months.

RockTenn Corp. is a consumer packaging manufacturer based in Norcross, Ga. RockTenn bought Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. in May 2011. OSHA is represented in federal district court by the Labor Department's Office of the Solicitor.

OSHA enforces the whistleblower provisions of the OSH Act and 20 other statutes protecting employees who report reasonably perceived violations of various workplace, commercial motor vehicle, airline, nuclear, pipeline, environmental, railroad, public transportation, maritime, consumer product, health care reform, corporate securities, food safety and consumer financial reform regulations.

Employees who believe that they have been retaliated against for engaging in protected conduct may file a complaint with the secretary of labor for an investigation by OSHA's Whistleblower Protection Program. Detailed information on employee whistleblower rights is available online at http://www.whistleblowers.gov.

To ask questions, obtain compliance assistance, file a complaint, or report workplace hospitalizations, fatalities or situations posing imminent danger to workers, the public should call OSHA's toll-free hotline at 800-321-OSHA (6742) or the agency's Jacksonville Area Office in Florida at 954-424-0242.

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers are responsible for providing safe and healthful workplaces for their employees. OSHA's role is to ensure these conditions for America's working men and women by setting and enforcing standards, and providing training, education and assistance. For more information, visit http://www.osha.gov.

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