A school janitor was awarded over $193,000 in lost wages and damages after the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) found that the district retaliated against her after complaining about asbestos exposure.
The complaint stemmed from a job that janitors Theresa Ely and Rob Smith worked for Dearborn Heights School District No. 7 over the summer in 2012. The two were assigned to Annapolis High School to help re-wax the floors. Ely said that they were told to dry sand the floor tiles rather than use scrubbers and water in order to speed up the process because the district was behind schedule.
In an interview with the Detroit Free Press, Ely reported that Smith gathered the fine white dust that was created while sanding with a leaf blower, which Ely then collected in 30 trash bags before dragging them down from the second floor and into a dumpster that was already overflowing.
According to Ely, there was a coating of film covering the first floor hallways and furniture, as well as on cars in the parking lot. She even needed to rinse out her mouth in order to spit out dust that had accumulated there. Ely also said that neither she nor Smith received proper asbestos removal training prior to the job which requires disposing the material in airtight containers while wearing respirators and protective clothing.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared that asbestos was a hazardous pollutant in 1971, and no level of exposure is currently considered safe. Asbestos is known to cause cancer and lung disease, but the symptoms may not appear for decades.
After bringing her complaint about asbestos present in Annapolis High School and other schools throughout the district to Michigan's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA), Ely brought her complaint to the federal OSHA. The district was ordered to pay Ely $185,000 by OSHA for future medical bills, emotional distress, and humiliation and loss of reputation caused by emails sent throughout the district “deliberately labeling her a troublemaker,” and “subsequently refusing to retract this statement when in possession of multiple reports indicating her concerns were legitimate.” The district was also ordered to pay $8,139 in lost wages.
OSHA also discovered that a district-issued report was falsified to say that no one was exposed to asbestos after the dry sanding. The district can appeal OSHA’s findings to the U.S. Department of Labor for up to 30 days, starting June 30.
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