The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s federal investigators found Dearborn, MI school district officials guilty of violating the whistleblower provisions of the Clean Air Act after punishing a school janitor when she complained about exposure to asbestos while cleaning school floor tiles.
According to a June 30 press release from OSHA’s Region 5, the district has been ordered to pay the worker nearly $200,000 in back wages, damages and other compensation. The investigators found that the woman ” was labeled a troublemaker and subjected to a continuing litany of adverse personnel actions by the Dearborn Heights School District.”
“No worker should be harassed or punished for reporting unsafe working conditions, advocating for other employees and seeking assurance that they are not being exposed to carcinogenic materials such as asbestos which can impact their long-term health,” said Ken Nishiyama Atha, OSHA’s regional administrator in Chicago. “OSHA’s investigation found the Dearborn Heights School District clearly knew the tiles contained asbestos and failed to protect workers from exposure.”
Asbestos is a human carcinogen that is known to cause mesothelioma, a terminal cancer, lung cancer and other respiratory illnesses. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports, “Asbestos is a human carcinogen with no safe level of exposure.” As a result, anyone exposed to asbestos is at a life-long risk of developing mesothelioma. The disease has an extended latency period and can strike up to 60 years after exposure to the deadly toxin.
The Clean Air Act was established in 1970 by the EPA to protect the public with an “adequate margin of safety,” and offers guidelines for keeping the public and workers safe from asbestos and other environmental hazards. Included within the act are specific guidelines for ensuring workers are protected from dangers while on the job.
In the case that dates back to June 2012, the woman was told to “dry sand floor tiles” that were known to contain asbestos. However, the school district did not provide training or protective equipment to the woman or other workers. Although the woman continually faced reprimands and repercussions including layoffs and extra work from her employers, she did not back down in her efforts to advocate for herself and others for safer working conditions.
OSHA reports investigators determined the district falsely represented that a 2013 sampling was negative for asbestos, and in June 2013, the district was cited for exposing workers to asbestos containing material.
Mesothelioma is a serious, incurable cancer diagnosed in nearly 3,000 Americans each year.