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OSHA awards retaliation damages to janitor who reported asbestos

Employees in North Carolina and elsewhere who learn that asbestos is present on property owned by their employers are often reluctant to say anything for fear of being fired or suffering other forms of recrimination. A school custodian in Michigan suffered such a fate after reporting the presence of asbestos-containing floor tiles in a school where she worked. However, she was able to recover damages because negative statements about her made by the School District were held by the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration to be an act of retaliation.

The custodian had been given the task of re-waxing tile floors in the high school, but, because the job was behind schedule, she and other custodians were told to merely dry sand the floors instead of cleaning and re-waxing them. The floor tiles contained asbestos fibers, but this fact was not discovered until after the sanding was completed. The sanding released the asbestos fibers into the air, and the custodians used leaf blowers to blow the fine white powder released by the tiles into large trash bags that were tossed into a dumpster. None of the custodians had received training in asbestos abatement procedures, and none was given adequate protective clothing or masks.

When the custodian complained, she was labeled a "trouble maker" in district-wide communications by the school board. The custodian filed a retaliation complaint with OSHA. After hearing the evidence, OSHA awarded the woman $8,139 in lost wages and $185,000 for emotional distress, future medical bills and damage to her reputation. OSHA also sought to punish the School District for denying the truth of numerous reports validating the custodian's concerns.

The award of damages by OSHA did not include any money for asbestos exposure per se, but the custodian and her co-workers would nevertheless have claims against the manufacturer of the floor tiles and other parties who were responsible for installing the tiles and against the School District for failing to warn about the necessity of using proper asbestos removal techniques.

Anyone who has been exposed to asbestos-containing products under similar circumstances may wish to consult a lawyer who specializes in pursuing claims for damages caused by asbestos exposure. Such a consultation can provide a helpful evaluation of the case and an estimate of the likelihood of recovering damages for lost income, medical expense and pain and suffering.

Source: Detroit Free Press, "OSHA finds retaliation against school janitor who reported asbestos," Jennifer Dixon, June 30, 2016

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