Water Whistleblower Receives Reinstatement and $265,000 in Damages

June 11, 2012 - Comments Off

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) of the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) has ordered Alaska-based North Star Behavioral Health System to reinstate an employee who was terminated after voicing safety concerns regarding the company’s compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act (“SDWA”).  OSHA reported in a press release that the employee had raised concerns about the quality of drinking water at a company facility and a lack of appropriate licensing for a North Star manager, who for several months held regulatory responsibilities related to the facility’s drinking water system.

The SDWA concerns lead levels in drinking water from both above-ground and underground sources. Under the SDWA, any public building – whether constructed before or after the passage of the SDWA – must have lead-free drinking water. Additionally, any new construction – public or private – must have lead-free drinking water.  Employees are protected from retaliation for reporting potential violations of the law.

OSHA reported that in retaliation for reporting concerns about North Star’s non-compliance with the SDWA to state agencies, the employer disciplined the complainant, ordered him to refrain from future contact with regulatory agencies and then fired him for allegedly sabotaging the facility’s water supply. Following an investigation into the incident, OSHA determined that the evidence did not support the employer’s reasons for disciplining the employee or the allegations of sabotage. Files reviewed during the investigation showed a history of outstanding performance by the employee prior to his engaging in protected activity.

In addition to reinstatement, the OSHA order required that North Star pay roughly $165,000 in damages to the employee to compensate for back wages, emotional distress, and attorneys’ fees, as well as another $100,000 in punitive damages.  Dean Ikeda, OSHA’s regional administrator in Seattle, stated that “Workers have the right to voice safety concerns without fear of retaliation or termination.  Employers found in violation of whistleblower protection provisions will be held accountable.”

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