An Eastern Kentucky coal miner can return to work after a judge ruled he was unfairly fired from his job. The decision affirms the rights of coal miners to report unsafe working conditions without fear of retribution.

Charles Scott Howard was injured while working at a mine operated by Cumberland River Coal Company in Eastern Kentucky. The complaint alleges that even after he was cleared by doctors to return to work, the coal company took extreme steps to keep him from working.

The judge agreed with Howard and mine safety attorney Tony Oppegard that Cumberland River Coal discriminated against Howard because he had a history of reporting unsafe working conditions. This is a violation of the federal Mine Act, which protects whistleblowers from retribution.

Oppegard says the judge’s decision should send a message to other coal miners.

“You can stand up for your rights and you can prevail in the long run,” he said. “Scott is not the type of miner who is willing to risk his safety or the safety of his coworkers in order to get another ton of coal out of the ground.”

Oppegard added that in Eastern Kentucky—where there are no union mines—it’s essential to have miners who are protected for reporting unsafe conditions.

“Frankly, a lot of companies don’t want miners who are vigilant for safety,” he said. “They want to be able to cut corners when they feel like it, and Scott’s the type of miner who won’t let Cumberland River cut corners.”

The judge ruled that Cumberland River—which is a subsidiary of Arch Coal—pay $30,000 in penalties and reinstate Howard at his old job. A spokeswoman for Arch Coal says it’s the company’s policy not to comment on litigation.