How Well Are Truck Safety Laws Being Used?

A study by TDU of truck safety whistleblower cases shows that a member awareness campaign by the Teamsters Union could drastically boost the number of complaints filed, and won, by drivers. This could mean many lives and many Teamsters jobs saved.

Section 31105 of the Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA) protects drivers (and some other motor carrier employees, such as mechanics) from retaliation over reporting truck safety problems. OSHA is charged with the power to investigate and make initial rulings on complaints.

The law was enacted in 1983. Yet, for the first eight years of its existence, often as few as 10 cases per year were filed. Few drivers were aware of the law, due to a nearly complete failure on the part of OSHA to publicize its protections. And until 1993, the IBT also kept drivers in the dark.

Info From IBT in Early 1990s Made Big Difference

In 1994 and 1995 the number of cases jumped significantly (to 150 and 317 respectively). This tenfold increase over several years followed on the heels of an education effort by the Carey administration, spurred by TDU’s own efforts. The IBT produced a brochure and publicized the case of Ohio Yellow Freight driver Willie Smith. Yellow fired Smith for refusing to drive while fatigued. He went on to win reinstatement and a large monetary award.

Since then, drivers have filed over 250 complaints each year. Over the 17-year life of the law, a total of 1,970 complaints have been filed.

A majority of the complaints address retaliation over refusal to drive. For example, in the year 2000 nearly half (109) dealt with refusal to drive. Unfortunately, OSHA could not provide more specific information, such as the number of refusal cases that involve driver fatigue.

The numbers do show that union members are far more likely to make use of rights like the STAA. During 1995, drivers filed 38 complaints against Roadway, four against UPS, four against CF and seven against Yellow Freight. For the same year only one complaint was filed at Overnite, and zero filed at Saia.

Taking advantage of important rights is clearly another advantage of working union.

OSHA Rules Favorably on Minority of Cases

What happens to the complaints after being filed is instructive. OSHA routinely dismisses well over 40 percent of the complaints filed. In 2000, the figure was 69 percent.

Add to these figures complaints that are withdrawn voluntarily, and it is clear that OSHA finds a minority of cases to have merit (31 percent average since 1983). True, some complaints may not have a sound basis. And some lose due to technicalities like failing to file on time.

But what we have learned over the years is that OSHA will generally take on the cases that are near-certain winners. And according to OSHA investigators, poor documentation sinks many cases. Keep notes, records and other documents and your complaint will have a better chance of winning in the early stages of the process.

Many Win on Appeal

Many dismissed cases can still prevail (and often do). So it is important to be prepared to take your case to a hearing if OSHA rejects it.

Roughly 600 cases (or 30 percent of the total filed) were appealed beyond OSHA and ruled on for the years 1983-2000. Nailing down the win-loss ratio at this level is much more difficult, as cases can drag on for a number years, get settled or get appealed to higher bodies.

Based on the experience of TDU members, however, many cases go on to win when they are taken to a hearing after OSHA declines to act.

TDU Education Campaign

No one knows exactly how many instances there are each year of employers retaliating against employees over truck safety. But one thing is certain: the number far exceeds the roughly 250 complaints that actually get filed.

So there is still much work to be done to get the word out about this important safety and job protection.

In the absence of any effort on the part of the current Teamsters Union, TDU has kicked off a campaign to inform Teamsters of the law, and how to make the most of it. TDUs new publication, The STAA Handbook, is the only detailed guide to the law.

You can help educate co-workers about their rights under the STAA. Order copies of the handbook and encourage others to do the same. Contact TDU about conducting a workshop on the law. And help distribute articles like this one from Convoy Dispatch.

The information in this article is based on records obtained from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration through a Freedom of Information Act request.

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