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May 22, 2017

U.S. Department of Labor files lawsuit claiming Palo Foods employee allegedly fired after raising safety concerns

The U.S. Department of Labor has alleged in a lawsuit that Wisconsin popcorn manufacturer Palo Foods, Inc. retaliated against one of its factory workers after she raised concerns about the safety of her work environment. She also demanded that she be allowed to take home information on how to protect herself from potentially harmful flavoring chemicals.

The worker, represented by attorneys for the Department of Labor, began working with Palo Foods in 2011, according to the federal complaint filed April 11 in the Eastern District of Wisconsin Milwaukee Division. She began experiencing headaches and nosebleeds in 2013 after working with a pickle spice used as a popcorn seasoning, the complaint alleged.

Airborne flavoring chemicals, such as diacetyl and 2,3-Pentanedione that are commonly used in popcorn, pet food, e-cigarettes and numerous other products are associated with an increased risk of severe lung disease when inhaled. Food workers may be particularly at risk due to prolonged exposure to the chemicals in large amounts.

When the woman expressed concerns to her supervisor regarding the ventilation in her work area, she was improperly fitted with a respirator and later relocated to a different work area, but claimed that her symptoms persisted. The woman then asked for a copy of the Material Safety Data Sheet for the pickle spice to review recommended safety precautions, which reportedly included mandatory personal protective equipment and proper ventilation. The woman alleged that she was allowed to read the data sheet at work, but was denied a request for her own copy for further review at home.

After repeatedly asking for her own copy of the document, the woman alleged that her supervisor responded “he was never going to have another conversation about her concerns or the MSDS again,” and that “if she or any other employee thought the company was putting them in harm’s way, they should look for other employment.”

The woman was later fired after informing her employer that her husband had contacted OSHA to report the issue. The woman’s termination was in violation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 as she was maliciously discriminated against for exercising her rights, the civil complaint alleged. She is seeking an unspecified amount for lost wages, benefits and other damages. 

Motley Rice has experience representing workers who have suffered severe health effects related to flavoring chemicals. If you or a loved one has been harmed, contact a flavoring chemical attorney.