Caution: for adult eyes only.

I’ve just read a horrendous case of an employer’s failing to correct a hostile work environment with glaring and gross instances of sexual harassment.  The employer? The U.S. Department of Labor, Mine Safety and Health Administration.  The victim is Ms. Heather Smith, an MSHA employee in Madisonville, KY; the harasser is her former immediate supervisor, Robert Gray.   His offensive and illegal behavior include:

  • constantly staring at Smith’s body and trying to look down her blouse
    suggesting she wear ‘see through’ dresses
  • asking to see photographs of her in a bikini
  • asking her to give him a neck massage
  • telling her and her spouse, shortly before he was deployed to Iraq, in a sexually-suggestive manner, that he would take ‘good care of’ her while he was gone
  • asking her to take time off from work with him

  • recounting how he was sexually attracted to his step daughter, and recounted an incident where he had watched her lying on the floor when she was not wearing panties
  • showing her a photo of his penis that was stored in his cell phone

Unbelievably, there’s more of the same in the investigation report of her harassment complaint.

After being subjected to her supervisor’s disgusting behavior, Ms. Smith complained in June 2008 to the Labor Department’s EEO office and filed a formal complaint in August 2008 with the Department’s Civil Rights Center (CRC).   While the CRC’s investigation was ongoing, Ms. Smith was then subjected to various acts of retaliation from supervisors, including the District Manager (Mr. Carl Boone), who refused to transfer Mr.  Robert Gray out of the office.

Long-time mine safety advocate and attorney Tony Oppegard is assisting Ms. Smith with this ordeal.   He indicated that MSHA’s so-called solution to the matter was to suspend Mr. Gray for 14 days without pay, but then assign him to a non-supervisory position that he long coveted, in the same Madisonville office.   To this day, Ms. Heather Smith is still forced to regularly cross paths with the man who sexually harassed her. 

It’s perplexing to me that any senior officials at DOL or MSHA would consider working in the same office as your harasser as an appropriate resolution.   Further-more, it tells me that DOL/MSHA’s sexual harassement policy isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. 

The Louisville Courier-Journal’s Ralph Dunlop reports in “MSHA refused to fire official who harassed subordinate, suit says,”  that:

“The Labor Department investigation rejected Smith’s claim that she suffered retaliation after complaining about Gray.  In August the department offered her $5,043 in compensatory damages, which she has refused as insufficient.”

A meazly $5,043?    As if Ms. Smith wasn’t disrepected enough. 

She’s not giving in yet though to the MSHA ol’ boys club.  Kudos to her.  Her attorney Tony Oppegard indicated to me that he encouraged MSHA officials to settle the case before he was forced to file the federal suit on Ms. Smith’s behalf.  He said he has even more damning evidence about the behavior of MSHA managers and he would use it as evidence at trial.   DOL/MSHA refused to settle.

Ms. Heather Smith’s suit was filed in federal district court against Labor Secretary Solis and MSHA.  Oppegard rightfully notes:

“With the amount of time that Gray spent harassing Heather, he couldn’t have been doing much for the health and safety of miners.”

Read the Louisville Courier-Journal’s news story for quotes and comments from some of those involved in the matter.   A hostile work environment in which a worker is subjected to any form of harasssment IS a safety and health matter.  MSHA should know better.

Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH is an asst. research professor in the Dept of Environ-mental & Occupational Health at the George Washington University School of Public Health.  She worked at MSHA from 1996-2001.