Labor Dept. Sues Manufacturer After Popcorn Worker Whistleblower Complaint Over Flavor Additive Health Risks

The Department of Labor has filed a lawsuit against a popcorn manufacturer, indicating that it violated Whistleblower Act laws by firing an employee who complained about potential health risks linked to a flavoring chemical used in the products. 

The complaint (PDF) was filed by Edward C. Hugler, Acting Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor, against Palo Foods, Inc. in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin on April 11.

According to allegations raised in the lawsuit, Palo Foods fired Karla Lisowe after she requested information on a dill pickle seasoning used to flavor popcorn manufactured at the company’s Sheboygan County facility.

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Lisowe began working for the company in January 2011, and was assigned to work with a spice identified as “Dill Pickle Flavor, Snack Seasoning #3364” in April 2013. According to Lisowe, she began suffering headaches and nosebleeds once she began working with the popcorn flavoring.

The employee requested personal protective equipment and was given a respirator, but was not fitted for it. She also indicated that there appeared to be insufficient ventilation in the work area. However, problems continued and the lawsuit indicates that Lisowe asked multiple times to be given a copy of the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for the spice to take home.

Lisowe was allowed to see the MSDS, but the plant manager, Brian Pearson, refused to give her a copy, the lawsuit claims.

“On or about April 22, 2013, Mr. Pearson told Ms. Lisowe that he was never going to have another conversation about her concerns or the MSDS again,” the lawsuit states. “On or about April 24, 2013, Ms. Lisowe was also told by Mr. Pearson that if she or any other employee thought the company was putting them in harm’s way, they should look for other employment.”

When she again requested a copy of the MSDS in May 2013 and notified the company that her husband had contacted the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) she was immediately fired, the lawsuit indicates.

The Department of Labor charges that the factory violated Whistleblower Protection laws by firing Lisowe after investigating her complaint. It is seeking to have the factory compensate her for lost wages, offer her reinstatement or provide her with front pay, as well as punitive damages.

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