Feds Punish Trucking Company After Whistleblower Complaint

Driver says company retaliated after a refusal to drive while sick

A truck driver who refused employer's orders to violate safety regulations will receive compensation for lost wages and earn a clean personnel file.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued those orders last week after investigating a whistleblower's complaint against Washington-based Oak Harbor Freight Lines Inc.

The regulatory agency also ordered the company to stop retaliating against workers who refused to drive when they were too sick or tired to safely operate their trucks.

"A company cannot place its attendance policies ahead of the safety of its drivers and that of the public," said David L. Mahlum, the acting regional administrator of OSHA in Seattle.

OSHA's investigation found a commercial truck driver who worked for the company's office in Portland, Ore. had notified supervisors that he was sick and taking a prescribed narcotic cough suppressant. The trucker was then suspended without pay before being fired in September 2010 for refusing to drive.

Driving laws prohibit commercial drivers from operating vehicles when their ability or alertness is impaired by fatigue or illness, and they cannot drive for more than 11 hours without a mandatory 10-hour off-duty break. The Surface Transportation Assistance Act protects drivers from retaliation for refusing to break these rules, among others.

Federal agencies do not release the identities of people who file whistleblower complaints, and it was not immediately clear how much money the trucker would receive based on the decision or if OSHA would further fine the company.

Oak Harbor Freight Lines did not return a phone call Monday seeking comment.

Trucking safety has been under increased scrutiny in recent years. In 2012, truck occupant fatalities rose 8.9 percent, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics. It was the third consecutive year that fatalities increased.

Safety groups are hoping the federal government will soon require trucks to be equipped with electronic monitors that could log how long drivers have been on the road.

OSHA has cracked down on trucking companies. On Monday, the agency fined Missouri-based trucking company New Prime, Inc. more than $100,000, according to the Springfield News-Leader, for blacklisting a driver who sought medical attention for a work-related injury.

Last August, OSHA ordered M3 Transport to pay a driver $315,000 after it found the company had violated the whistleblower provisions of the Surface Transportation Assistance Act. A driver had refused an assignment with a co-worker who had been smoking cigarettes while hauling explosives.

This is not the first time an employee of Oak Harbor Freight Lines has said the company discriminated. In August 2011, Robert Argyle filed a complaint with the Civil Rights Division of the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, saying the company had violated the Oregon Family Leave Act or federal Family Medical and Leave Act when he was approved for leave but later disciplined for absences.

Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached via email at peter.bigelow@teamaol.com and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.

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