OSHA finds retaliation against school janitor who reported asbestos

DEARBORN — The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration today awarded a school janitor more than $193,000 in damages and lost wages after finding that she was retaliated against for complaining about being exposed to asbestos in Dearborn Heights School District No. 7.

Theresa Ely and a second janitor had complained after they dry-sanded asbestos-containing floor tiles at Annapolis High School in the summer of 2012. They only learned after the fact that the tiles contained asbestos, and say they had never received training on proper removal procedures.

Ely and fellow custodian Rob Smith were featured in a two-part Free Press series  in May that found that Michigan’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration rarely gets tough penalties against employers who expose their workers to asbestos.

There is no known safe level of exposure to asbestos, which was declared a hazardous pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1971. It can cause lung disease and cancer, although symptoms may not become apparent for decades.

Ely told the Free Press she was assigned to help rewax the floors at Annapolis High School. She said the district was behind schedule and told custodians to dry sand the floor tiles to save time, rather than using water and scrubbers.

While Smith used a leaf blower to corral the fine white dust that piled up in the second-story classrooms of the school after the sanding, Ely said she scooped the powder into 30 garbage bags, dragged them down the stairs and tossed them into an overflowing Dumpster.

Ely said a film coated cars in the parking lot and the furniture in the hallways on the first floor. She said she spat out the dust with mouthfuls of Pepsi.

Proper abatement procedures include wearing protective clothing and respirators, as well as disposing of asbestos in airtight containers.

Ely complained to OSHA that she was the victim of retaliation after complaining to MIOSHA about asbestos in the school and elsewhere in the district.

Federal OSHA ordered the district to pay her $8,139 in lost wages and $185,000 for emotional distress, future medical bills and loss of her reputation and humiliation stemming from the district “deliberately labeling her a troublemaker” in district-wide emails and “subsequently refusing to retract this statement when in possession of multiple reports indicating her concerns were legitimate,” OSHA said in its report.

The agency also found that a report issued by the district saying there was no asbestos exposure following the dry sanding was falsified.

The district has 30 days to appeal the findings to the U.S. Department of Labor.

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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