A school district in Michigan ran afoul of federal laws protecting whistleblowers when it fired an employee who reported unsafe working conditions. That determination against the Dearborn Heights School District – made last week by OSHA - carries with it a $102,905.78 penalty, for back wages, damages and other compensation.

A key witness in another whistleblower case

The case is a multi-layered one. Federal investigators determined that the Michigan school district violated the Clean Air Act. The terminated employee served as a key witness for federal investigators in a 2012 whistleblower complaint from an employee who alleged employee and student exposure to asbestos at the public school. In fall 2016, the employee also reported potential exposure of pesticide at the school to the Michigan Environmental Protection Agency.

Erroneous claims on website

OSHA's investigation found the Dearborn Heights School District publicly disputed these employees' complaints, as well as media reports of potential exposure to hazards. The district also maintained an information link on its website alleging that both employees had presented misinformation and caused a public health scare. In addition, the district stated on the public website that it was within its rights to terminate whistleblowers, a clear violation of federal law.

The employee assisted with the 2012 investigation after the worker objected when the director of operations and construction management told the worker to dry sand floor tiles that contained asbestos at Annapolis High School. The director failed to train the workers in asbestos hazards and provide protective equipment.

Heightened surveillance

Within days of receipt of the Department of Labor's June 2016 findings in the employee's whistleblower case, the school district allegedly embarked on heightened surveillance of the second employee, a lengthy progressive discipline campaign against the individual, and eventually terminated their employment for actions including reporting unsafe conditions to state and federal agencies.

"All workers are entitled to a safe and healthful workplace without the fear of retaliation for voicing concerns," said OSHA Acting Chicago Regional Administrator William Donovan. "No worker should be harassed, publicly defamed or punished for reporting unsafe working conditions, advocating for other employees and seeking assurances that they and students are not being exposed to carcinogenic materials."

Earlier whistleblower got $210K

In the previous action, Dearborn Heights School District contested OSHA's June 2016 findings in favor of the first whistleblower. An Administrative Law Judge ordered the district, through a settlement, to pay the former janitor $210,261 in back wages and damages on Feb. 14, 2018.