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The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has ordered a Michigan school district to pay $193,139 to a janitor who was punished for complaining about exposure to asbestos while cleaning school floor tiles.
The Dearborn Heights School District violated the whistleblower protections of the Clean Air Act and must pay the janitor $8,139 in lost wages, $45,000 toward current and future medical bills, and $140,000 in compensatory damages for loss of reputation and distress, as well as reasonable attorney's fees, the agency said Wednesday in a statement.
In June 2012, the janitor objected when the director of operations and construction management told her to dry-sand floor tiles that contained asbestos at Annapolis High School in Dearborn Heights despite failing to train workers in asbestos hazards or provide protective equipment, according to the agency.
The unidentified janitor suffered adverse personnel actions as she continued to raise concerns about asbestos levels in the schools, presented medical documentation of her asbestos exposure and advocated to protect other employees, according to OSHA. She was also reprimanded after she filed complaints with the State of Michigan, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration and spoke to media organizations about school conditions. In response, she endured layoffs, extra work and lack of pay raises, according to the agency.
“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,” Ken Nishiyama Atha, OSHA's regional administrator in Chicago, said in the statement. “OSHA's investigation found the Dearborn Heights School District clearly knew the tiles contained asbestos and failed to protect workers from exposure.”
A district spokesperson could not be immediately reached for comment.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has launched a pilot program targeting severe violators of whistleblower rights.