Did you know that an employee with an occupational safety concern in your healthcare facility could trigger an OSHA visit by blowing the proverbial whistle? OSHA takes these “whistleblower” calls seriously and protects workers who make them. Though the worker may be mistaken about the risk factor cited, employee health nurses can head off such incidents by trying to understand and address the problem, or if warranted, take it to hospital leadership. Consider the following case a textbook example of how not to handle such situations.
Employees concerned about potential injuries
The incident began when Massachusetts dentist N. Terry Fayad, DMD, PC, changed his practice’s procedure for disposing of contaminated needles, OSHA reported.1 The dentist told office staff to first remove the protective caps before dropping the needles into sharps disposal containers. According to OSHA, the practice was allegedly to fill the containers with more used needles and reduce the frequency and cost of their disposal.
Concerned that she and her co-workers could be exposed to needlestick injuries and the risk of infection from bloodborne pathogens such as hepatitis and HIV, a dental assistant raised the issue with the dentist. When he dismissed her concern she filed a complaint with OSHA, the agency reported. After an OSHA inspector visited on Nov. 23, 2010, Fayad fired her later that day.
A whistleblower investigation followed and, in September 2011, the Department of Labor sued Fayad in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. In its complaint, the department charged that the dentist violated the anti-retaliation provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The suit eventually went to trial before U.S. District Judge George A. O’Toole.
Financial, legal consequences
Judge O’Toole has ruled in favor of the department and ordered Fayad’s practice to pay the worker $51,644.80 in back wages and $33,450.26 in compensatory damages. The judge found that the employee’s firing by Fayad shortly after OSHA began its inspection was retaliatory and a violation of section 11(c) of the OSH Act.
“This worker suffered needless financial and emotional distress because Dr. Fayad chose to disregard a clear and important principle: Employees have the right to contact OSHA and raise workplace health and safety concerns with their employer without fear of termination or retaliation,” said Greg Baxter, OSHA’s acting regional administrator for New England. “Employers must pay attention to this verdict. It makes it clear that there will be legal and financial consequences if you retaliate against your employees in this manner.”
And the OSHA inspection that led to the firing? Violations of OSHA’s bloodborne pathogen and hazard communication standards resulted in finds of $11,000, which the dentist paid in 2012.
More information on employee whistleblower rights, including fact sheets, is available at http://www.whistleblowers.gov/.
- OSHA. Court orders dentist to pay $85K to employee fired for safety complaint. April 8, 2015: http://1.usa.gov/1G2Lldf.