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Second Lake Superior College staffer alleges retaliation – Duluth News Tribune | #schoolsaftey

DULUTH — A second lawsuit alleges that administrators at Lake Superior College retaliated against an employee who voiced concerns about a welding byproduct.

Vaughn Johnson, a longtime maintenance worker at the college, claimed in a July 7 lawsuit that the college has violated the state’s “whistleblower” act and its occupational safety act. He claims he was disciplined, and threatened with termination, after telling managers there that filtration and ventilation systems at the school’s Downtown Duluth Center hadn’t been kept up, and a pair of employees who had tried to service it weren’t provided proper safety equipment.

Poorly maintained filtration systems could mean there were improperly high levels at the downtown building of hexavalent chromium, a compound used in electroplating, stainless steel production, and other “hot work.” The compound is listed as a carcinogen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Johnson’s lawsuit claims that the college’s welding program produced the dangerous compound, “and that the air filtration and ventilation systems used to decrease hexavalent chromium exposure had not been properly maintained or serviced for some time.” He also claims he himself was exposed to hexavalent chromium.

Johnson says in his lawsuit that he reported his concerns to college representatives, including the school’s health and safety officer. He was worried, he said in the suit, that the compound may have migrated to other areas of the building.

He was later investigated for violating the school’s “respectful workplace policy,” and was reprimanded in January for engaging “in behavior that a reasonable person would find demeaning, humiliating, or bullying,” according to the lawsuit. College administrators also claimed that Johnson “did not follow proper chain of command when reporting safety concerns after already been given updates and answers several times by multiple individuals at the college.”

Johnson’s suit claims he was respectful and professional at all times while reporting his concerns. College administrators also removed Johnson from the school’s safety committee, he claimed.

Johnson’s dispute has the same contours as a similar one that resulted in a separate lawsuit filed earlier this year.

Miles Lunak, a former dean of business and industry at the college, claimed in a March 3 lawsuit that college higher-ups retaliated against him after he raised his own concerns about hexavalent chromium, plus other reported issues with administrators there. He was told in November 2022 that he was set to be fired because the college wanted to move its business and industry programming in a “new direction,” according to court papers.

Both men are represented by the same attorney.

In their respective suits, both allege that school administrators “refused to provide substantive information on the hexavalent chromium issue” at a faculty meeting or answer attendees’ questions there.

In response to a records request the News Tribune filed in late March, college administrators claimed there were no complaints lodged against Lunak and he was not disciplined by the school.

The News Tribune on Monday asked Lake Superior College staff for similar information about Johnson’s employment. President Patricia Rogers said she had forwarded that request to the school’s human resources department.

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

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