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DOL charges firm for axing complaining workers

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The U.S. Department of Labor has charged a Connecticut manufacturer for unlawfully terminating two employees for filing safety and health complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Watertown, Connecticut-based Eastern Awning Systems Inc. and Stephen Lukos, owner, president and director of the company, are the named defendants in the complaint, which requests a jury trial, according to a news release issued by OSHA on Tuesday.

Two employees filed complaints with OSHA after they became ill while working in the plant's powder coat room in June 2009, according to the agency. OSHA inspected and cited the company in December 2009 for willfully exposing the workers to inhalation hazards and for lack of adequate ventilation. While OSHA's inspection was ongoing, the company and Mr. Lukos discharged the two employees, according to the agency.

The employees then filed anti-discrimination or whistleblower complaints with OSHA and an investigation found the employees were unlawfully discharged for filing safety and health complaints with OSHA, which said efforts to resolve the matter without resorting to “adversarial litigation” were unsuccessful.

The department's lawsuit asks the court to find that the defendants wrongfully discharged the employees and order them to pay lost wages plus interest, compensatory damages for emotional distress as well as punitive damages, and the costs of the lawsuit.

“The law is clear and so is our message to employers: You cannot discriminate against employees for filing complaints with OSHA or voicing concerns about hazardous conditions in the workplace,” Michael Felsen, the Boston-based regional solicitor for the U.S. Department of Labor for New England, said in a statement.

Mr. Lukos could not be immediately reached for comment.

OSHA has taken employers to court for retaliating against employees who exposed health and safety hazards, but is facing challenges demonstrating to employers why it is important not to retaliate in the first place, David Michaels, the agency's assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, said at a National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health meeting Wednesday in Washington.

The agency is seeking public comments by Jan. 19 on a draft document intended to help employers establish a nonretaliatory workplace environment and provide guidance on protecting whistleblower rights.