Think twice before firing safety whistleblower

OSHA, the federal workplace safety law, includes strong anti-retaliation provisions. Before you discipline or discharge anyone who has filed safety complaints, make sure you have rock-solid reasons for doing so. Otherwise, punishing a safety whistleblower may mean liability for retaliation and punitive damages.

Recent case: Douglas was an engineering technician for Midwest Air Technologies, which makes compressors and pneumatic tools. He tested component parts to make sure they operated within established performance and safety limits.

MAT was in the middle of negotiations to sell pumps under a major customer’s brand name. Douglas would later report that he was under great pressure to produce test data showing the equipment was safe and reliable. Nonetheless, Douglas had to “fail” several units because they didn’t meet the company’s standards. His bosses were displeased.

Douglas refused one directive to redo his test report and another to falsify test data. He reported this to the Minnesota Department of Labor, noting that the faulty pumps could be a safety hazard. He also made his concerns known to a senior executive.

Suddenly, Douglas found himself the target of an internal investigation. An anonymous tipster claimed he had made derogatory remarks about women. He was terminated for “unacceptable conduct” that created a hostile work environment.

Douglas sued, alleging he had been fired for reporting safety concerns. He demanded punitive damages. The court said the case could go to trial and that punitive damages were available given the safety concerns Douglas had raised. (Sellner v. MAT Holdings, DC MN, 2018)