OSHA Violation: Workplace safety and sharps disposal

Disclaimer: Facts are based upon an actual OSHA investigation.  This case is presented for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion.

Case Study: Court orders dentist to pay $85K to employee fired for safety complaint

Areas of Impact: Regulatory Compliance; Employee Safety; Whistleblower

Case Summary:

In order to save money a Massachusetts dentist told staff to first remove the protective caps from contaminated needles before dropping them into sharps disposal containers, so they could fill the containers with more used needles and reduce the frequency and cost of their disposal.

Circumstances of the Case:

A dental assistant in this practice was concerned that she and her co-workers could be exposed to needle stick injuries and the risk of infection such as hepatitis and HIV.  She raised the issue with the dentist who disregarded her concern. The assistant exercised her legal right to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. An OSHA inspector visited on Nov. 23, 2010; later that day the dental assistant was fired.

A whistleblower investigation followed and, in September 2011, the Department of Labor sued the dentist 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.

Also, as a result of the OSHA inspection, the dentist was cited for violations of OSHA’s bloodborne pathogen and hazard communication standards. The violations were corrected, and the dentist paid a fine of $11,000.

Outcome of the Case:

The judge ruled in favor of the department [OSHA] and ordered the dentist to pay the assistant $51,644.80 in back wages as well as $33,450.26 in compensatory damages. The judge found that the employee’s termination was retaliatory and a violation of section 11(c) of the OSH Act.

What could have been done differently?

Hint: Review OSHA Module II Lesson IV Regulated Waste

Risk Management Take-Aways:

  • OSHA’s regulations apply to dental offices of all sizes; ignorance of the laws or willful noncompliance are not tolerated by regulators.
  • Cost-cutting measures must be evaluated carefully and objectively to ensure employee safety is not jeopardized and such cost-cutting does not result in noncompliance.
  • It’s not legal to retaliate against employee(s) who file complaints against the office. In the event a complaint was filed in retaliation against the dentist such as complaints filed by disgruntled staff (current or former), this would come to light during an investigation.  However, legitimate complaints are taken seriously.
  • In addition to paying over 43k in compensatory damages and fines for office violations, the dentist incurred reputational damage as well. Depending upon the size of the community, reputational loss can impact a dental practice financially.

Case Source: