U.S. labor officials have filed a lawsuit against a Connecticut awning manufacturer, claiming the company fired two workers who filed safety complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) after falling ill from chemical exposures on the job.
“This is a case where an employer willfully exposed its employees to workplace hazards, then compounded its unacceptable behavior by retaliating against these workers for exercising their rights to a healthy work environment,” said Kim Stille, OSHA’s regional administrator for New England.
The workers turned to OSHA after falling ill from working in Eastern Awning System’s powder coat room in June 2009. OSHA officials responded to their complaints by inspecting the company’s Watertown plant in December 2009.
That inspection found that Eastern Awning System willfully exposed the workers to inhalation hazards and for lack of adequate ventilation. OSHA cited the company for those violations and continued its inspection.
While the safety inspections were still underway, Eastern Awning Systems unlawfully fired the two employees in retaliation for complaining to OSHA about the safety and health violations, the agency alleges.
OSHA said that it tried to reach a civil agreement with the company and its owner, Stephen Lukos, “without resorting to adversarial litigation,” but that those attempts were unsuccessful. The agency then filed a complaint on behalf of the employees in federal court, asking it to find that the defendants were illegally discharged and ordering the company to pay the employees lost wages plus interest, compensatory damages for emotional distress, punitive damages, and that the company be expressly barred from committing the same violations in the future.
OSHA also asked the court to order the company to post a workplace notice informing employees of their rights and to pay the legal fees involved in pursuing 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. When employers take retaliatory actions as the defendants did here, we will pursue strong and appropriate remedies, including through legal action if needed,” said Michael Felsen, the Labor Department’s regional solicitor of labor for New England.