A River Falls, WI man who worked as a diesel mechanic for an Inver Grove Heights waste service company has filed suit against the company, claiming that he contracted “occupational asthma” while working in an unventilated area that company officials refused to fix.
Erick Oie filed a civil lawsuit against Allied Waste Services of North America, doing business as Republic Services of the Twin Cities in Inver Grove Heights, in Dakota County District Court.
The lawsuit, which claims that the company violated provisions of the Minnesota Human Rights Act and retaliated against him when he complained about working conditions, seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.
Oie began working for the company as a diesel mechanic in July 2003. The current owners took over the company in December 2008.
Oie began to complain to supervisors about the company’s lack of safety measures, including its failure to properly ventilate the space where diesel trucks ran in an enclosed space, according to the complaint.
When the company failed to correct the ventilation issues, Oie developed “occupational asthma,” a lung disorder in which substances in the workplace cause a person’s airways to swell and narrow, leading to wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness and coughing, the complaint alleges.
On Nov. 29, 2011, Oie claims that the company reacted to his safety complaints by switching him from first shift—which he had worked for nine years—to the less desirable third shift. After telling Oie that he was being switched to the third shift, the general manager told Oie, “I don’t blame you if you quit. I would quit if I were in your position,” the complaint charges.
Oie filed a formal complaint in December 2011 with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), detailing the alleged air-quality safety violations. OSHA officials investigated the worksite on Dec. 6, 2011; on Dec. 9, Oie filed a workers’ compensation claim.
Later that month, a physician put Oie on work restrictions requiring him to work in another area of the company until the ventilation issues were corrected. Oie’s lawsuit claims that the company continued to refuse to correct the ventilation problems, even after OSHA officials announced on Dec. 30 that safety violations had been found at the work site.
The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development notified Oie on Jan. 5, 2012, that he was eligible for unemployment because he was restricted to occupations that didn’t require him to work near diesel exhaust fumes.
Oie claims that the company continued to refuse to correct the ventilation problems or give him an alternative job assignment. Instead, the lawsuit alleges, Oie was told not to come to work and to collect unemployment benefits instead.
Oie was “constructively discharged” from his job on Sept. 24, 2012. A constructive discharge is defined as an employee leaving his or her job because working conditions have become so intolerable that he or she feels compelled to resign.
Jim Rauschnot, general manager of the Inver Grove Heights facility, would not comment on the lawsuit, though he acknowledged that the company had been served. “It’s under investigation right now, so I can’t comment,” Rauschnot said.
No court dates have been scheduled in the case.