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Calling for assistance for an injured coworker is a protected act

Note to employers: When somebody cuts off a thumb, it's basic human decency to call for an ambulance.

You don't have to take our word for it, either—the Occupational Safety and Health Administration says the same thing. It also says retaliating against an employee who does try to call for an ambulance when something like that happens is a violation of the law.

The U.S. Department of Labor has filed a lawsuit on behalf of an employee who was terminated from her job at a beef jerky manufacturing plant in West Virginia. The worker had witnessed a fellow employee sever his thumb and grabbed her cellphone to call for help. The company's owner ordered her to hang up. He handled the transport of the wounded employee to a local clinic himself, instead. The employee was eventually transferred to a hospital but attempts to reattach the thumb were unsuccessful.

Later, the witness expressed her concerns about the lack of appropriate personal protective equipment with an inspector from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She also noted that the owner didn't take the necessary measures to properly clean or sterilize the area where the accident occurred. Two days later, she was fired.

OSHA says that her actions were all protected under Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which protects employees from retaliation for expressing their concerns over health and safety violations. This is sometimes known as the "whistleblower" provision of the act. It's designed to make it possible for employees to alert authorities to problems that could affect not only workers but consumers without fear of losing their job.

Under the law, OSHA can ask the court to order the employer to provide the terminated employee with a number of different types of relief, including lost wages and payment for her emotional distress. If the employee so desires, OSHA could also ask for her reinstatement. In addition, it isn't unusual for OSHA to ask for punitive damages—which are designed solely to punish the employer and discourage other employers from similar actions.

If you believe that you are about to be fired or have already been fired in retaliation for a complaint that you made about safety or sanitary conditions in the workplace, remember that you actions may be protected under the law. Consider talking to an attorney as soon as possible if you have any doubts.

Source: Insurance Journal, "West Virginia Beef-Jerky Maker Sued for Firing Worker Who Tried to Report Accident," John Raby, Jan. 10, 2017

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