July 11, 2016
BIGLERVILLE, Pa. – For more than two months, a worker at a Pennsylvania pallet company repeatedly told her employer about health concerns related to mold exposure at a Biglerville plant. Despite confirming that the mold existed, IFCO Services N.A. Inc. did not remove the fungus and instead fired the woman less than three weeks after she complained again about her health concerns.
On July 6, 2016, the U.S. Department of Labor secured a consent judgment requiring IFCO to pay the employee $105,000 to settle her discrimination claim, as well as a related worker’s compensation claim The judgment resolves all issues in the department’s lawsuit filed on March 3.
“IFCO showed a total disregard for the well-being of its employees, who physically suffered due to ongoing exposure to mold hazards,” said Oscar L. Hampton, regional solicitor in Philadelphia. “This case demonstrates the department’s determination to take all necessary legal steps to protect workers who complain regarding hazards in their workplace.”
On April 8, 2014, the employee informed the company about suspected mold growing behind filing cabinets in an office at the plant. After more than a week, when the company took no action to correct the unhealthy working condition, the employee contacted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration about the mold and a potential electrical hazard. OSHA notified the company about the complaint.
Following the OSHA complaint, IFCO hired an environmental health contractor to sample the mold. The contractor notified IFCO that there was significant active mold growth occurring on the wall behind a filing cabinet and warned that remediation was required as quickly as possible.
From April 8 to June 13, 2014, the employee made repeated complaints to IFCO management about her continued exposure to the mold hazard, and the company’s delay in removing all affected employees from the contaminated work area. On July 1, 2014, less than three weeks after requesting again to be removed from the office, she was fired.
The employee filed a complaint with OSHA alleging her termination by IFCO was retaliation for reporting the mold hazard. The agency found that the company violated the anti-discrimination provision of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, or Section 11(c), when it terminated the complainant because she had engaged in protected activities under the Act.
“IFCO’s refusal to take immediate action to eliminate what was confirmed to be a serious mold hazard left its employees at risk of developing a chronic health condition,” said Richard Mendelson, OSHA regional administrator in Philadelphia. “They also retaliated against the employee who alerted the company and OSHA to the hazard. No worker should have to fear retaliation when they identify a workplace safety and health concern.” IFCO failed to reinstate the employee, as well as compensate her for lost wages and other damages suffered as a result of the improper termination.
Filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, in addition to the monetary settlement, the judgment requires that IFCO expunge the termination and any related disciplinary action from the complainant’s file, as well as post notices at its work site for 60 days stating that it will not discriminate or retaliate against employees involved in activities protected by Section 11 (c) of the Act. The company must also provide OSHA handouts entitled “Filing Whistleblower Complaints under Section 11(c) of the OSHA Act of 1970” to each employee at the worksite, in English and/or Spanish as appropriate. The company is also permanently enjoined from future 11 (c) violations.
Based in Houston, IFCO is a network of more than 50 company-owned and operated pallet distribution centers and a transportation fleet of more than 5,700 units. The largest pallet services company in the country with plants in 27 states, the company serves almost half of the top 25 U.S. retailers and 20 of the top 100 largest publicly held U.S. manufacturing companies.
The department’s Regional Office of the Solicitor in Philadelphia litigated the case.
OSHA enforces the whistleblower provisions of 22 statutes protecting employees who report violations of various airline, commercial motor carrier, consumer product, environmental, financial reform, food safety, motor vehicle safety, health care reform, nuclear, pipeline, public transportation agency, railroad, maritime and securities laws.
Employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees who raise concerns about health and safety hazards in the workplace to the employer or the government. Employees who believe that they have been retaliated against for engaging in protected conducted may file a complaint with the secretary of labor for an investigation by OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program. More information is available online at http://www.whistleblower.gov.
Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers are responsible for providing safe and healthful workplaces for their employees. OSHA’s role is to ensure these conditions for America’s working men and women by settling and enforcing standards, and providing training, education and assistance. For more information, call 800-321-6742 (OSHA) or visit http://www.osha.gov.