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HR Magazine - October 2000: The Perils of Putting People Second

By Robert J. Grossman  10/1/2000
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HR Magazine, October 2000

Vol. 45, No. 10

When Deborah Palmer, of Cohoes, N.Y., and her co-workers inhaled toxic fumes from a leak in the HVAC system at Building 8 on the New York State Office Campus in Albany, labor relations, HR and her line managers all disregarded her complaints.

"They said it was all in our heads and wouldn’t move us," she says. "Eventually, when I was diagnosed with chemically induced asthma and chemically induced hepatitis, I was furious. If they had acknowledged the problem, they could have tried to help us. For management to try to tear us down and tell us we were feeling nothing was wrong."

Management’s reaction yielded a predictably defensive reaction from the workers. "If management had been more supportive of the injured workers, we wouldn’t have had to fight them; we would have given more to our work," Palmer says. "Instead we spent all our time trying to get reasonable accommodations and not be exposed to the conditions that were making us sick. It’s hard to do your job under these circumstances. People go to work, counting the days ’til they can retire because they don’t want to give up everything they worked for."

After fighting and winning her claim for workers’ compensation, Palmer and 90 other plaintiffs are suing the manufacturer of the anti-corrosive agent they say caused their illnesses.

Cynthia LaFave, an attorney in Delmar, N.Y., represents the plaintiffs. "We represent a lot of workers in chemical exposure cases, and they don’t get the support of the employers," she says. "It seems that it’s pretty typical. Employers look at it as if the workers are trying to get something for nothing."

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