What Would You Do?
Business Ethics Magazine Corporate
Responsibility & Social Investing Report

When Fear Sets the Tone in the Workplace:
Sue's cough was getting worse, but her supervisor seemed unapproachable

By Don Soeken

When Sue Smith had landed the relatively well-paying factory job at RDS Corp., which manufactured gaskets for large machinery, she assumed her financial worries were over. As she sat at home now, remembering those three months, she rued the day she walked in the plant door.

Sue had taken the pre-employment physical, but apparently no one noticed it showed severe allergies that should have disqualified her from working in a chemical-laden environment. Her assignment was operating a casting machine. This involved working near open-vat chemicals, pouring and mixing toxic materials like toluene diisocyanate and methylene dianiline. Because these chemicals were not vented to the outside, Sue inhaled them regularly.

When she developed cold-like symptoms and consulted her family doctor, he gave her a prescription for bronchitis. Her cough failed to improve. Another doctor's visit brought another useless prescription. She wondered why the mask she wore didn't help much, and she called the manufacturer's 800 number on it. She was told it was an "organic dust mask" and would not protect against the chemicals she used.

Sue managed to continue her job and received an outstanding evaluation. But by the third month, she was terribly ill. She struggled with memory loss, urinary bleeding, vomiting of mucous, flashing lights in her eyes, hives, red blotches, and bloating. Her menstrual cycle had also been interrupted.

She was frightened to complain, but she knew this was serious. She heard from co- workers that others in her position before her had gotten sick. Gathering her courage, Sue told the manager about her symptoms and the call to the mask maker. "That mask is not protecting me from the chemical fumes," she said, and asked for workman's compensation for her treatment. Apparently afraid she would become a troublemaker, her supervisor denied her workman's comp claim and fired her.

Sue was home now, out of work, still suffering. She thought management might resist change but didn't expect this. What could she do?

Commentary: C. Fred Alford, Professor of Government and Politics, University of Maryland, College Park, MD. Author of Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power (Cornell University Press, 2000).

Sue Smith should have followed the first law of survival in these kinds of industrial poisoning cases: Find a good lawyer. But that step requires understanding the depressing fact that 90 percent of the lawyers in most jurisdictions (and 99 percent in the Yellow Pages) will not be suitable for this kind of case. What an injured worker needs here is a specialist -- the legal equivalent of a neurosurgeon.

One good place to start looking is the Government Accountability Project in Washington, which maintains lists of effective lawyers. Also, since damages are a real possibility, Sue should seek a lawyer who would take the case on a contingency basis.

Next step: A worker in Sue's situation should be careful to keep a paper trail. Make copies of all findings by doctors, psychologists and other medical personnel. Keep a diary of all related problems and write down details, because memories fade quickly --especially if chemicals are involved. Another important step is to write everyone who might be interested --including federal regulatory agencies, elected officials, newspapers, and advocacy groups.

She should also expect to be "investigated" and perhaps harassed by the company involved. The stakes are high, and these outfits often play rough. That means it's important to find emotional and spiritual support -- whether from a counselor, a minister, or an advocacy group.

Finally, people in Sue's position should be wary of sudden, small settlement offers from the companies involved, especially if "silence" is a condition of the agreement. Think twice about accepting such offers, and discuss them with an attorney.

Author Don Soeken's Comments:

The facts in this case show that the plant failed to observe appropriate safety regulations. This might have been a result of carelessness, overwork, or lack of budget, but for whatever reason, procedures weren't followed. The case offers a reminder that when employee health is at stake, the most careful attention to safety details is mandatory. However pressing it may be to get the work out and hold down costs, employers should treat their employees with the care and respect they show their own families.

In this kind of devastating scenario, everyone loses. The company can suffer economic losses through litigation, lost work-time, and damage to its good name. Employees lose their good health, sometimes their lives. The message is simple: Cutting corners on safety costs more dollars than it saves.

What Really Happened?

Denied worker's comp, Sue Smith appealed. At the hearing, company representatives insisted safety stipulations had been met, while she maintained they had not. Sue lost on technical grounds. She contacted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which told her that the chemicals should have been vented to the outside and that her employer had never sought a permit for such venting. After inspection and penalties by EPA and a second federal agency, the plant was renovated to include required safety features. The work area was retrofitted with a plastic enclosure, inside which all chemical mixing now takes place. Workers manipulate toxic chemicals with long gloves that protrude into the enclosure. For the period before the changeover, the corporation was fined for failing to meeting safety requirements. Sue is now struggling with several life-threatening ailments linked to her poisoning and is searching for a lawyer to assist her in a lawsuit for damages.

Don R. Soeken (helpline@tidalwave.net) is the director of Integrity International in Laurel, MD, where he assists employees with whistle blowing, civil rights, disability retirement, and worker's compensation.