Lee SlatonBy Lee Slaton, Vice President of Healthcare; Smart Training

Earlier this year—following a federal whistleblower investigation and litigation by the U.S. Department of Labor—two Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex dentists agreed to pay $15,706 in back wages to two former employees after entering a consent judgment.

The Department of Labor had filed a lawsuit against the dentists in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, Fort Worth Division in July 2021.

The consent judgment—which also forbids the employer from future violations of the OSH Act and requires the dentists to provide neutral work references for the wrongfully terminated employees—was approved by the Court and entered on Feb. 3, 2023.

Why were the employees fired?

The dentists had fired the two workers—who will share the $15,706—for raising concerns about COVID-19 safety measures in spring 2020.

As it was required for every state in the country, Texas banned specific dental procedures in March and April of 2020. Accordingly, dentists furloughed their employees during that time. An OSHA investigation found that while furloughed, the dental hygienist and dental assistant had asked what safety measures would be in place once patients and employees returned.

I’ll digress slightly to note that during this period, Smart Training compliance advisors received multiple calls from clinicians all over the country—all who expressed concerns regarding their practices’ infection control and exposure control procedures to deal with the pandemic.

After receiving a call to return to work, the practice did not reinstate the hygienist after the hygienist cited guidance from OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. OSHA also found the practice rescinded its offer to rehire the dental assistant after the dental assistant inquired about safety measures and protection.

Why were the dentists penalized?

As previously stated, both employees were ultimately terminated. OSHA determined the employer discriminated against the employees for exercising their right to express concerns about their safety and health.

“Like all workers, these two people had every right to speak up without the fear of losing their jobs,” Dallas OSHA Regional Administrator Eric Harbin stated. “We want workers to know that OSHA is here to protect their rights, and we won’t hesitate to exercise our authority when they are violated.”

As practice owners, you have an obligation to:

  • Ensure your staff is comfortable addressing these concerns with management.
  • Address the concerns in a practical and informed way.

OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program enforces the provisions of more than 20 whistleblower statutes, protecting employees from retaliation for reporting violations of various workplace laws regarding safety and health, as well as many other areas ranging from the environment to taxes.

I’ve used this space over the years to address compliance and safety issues affecting all concerned—practice owners, staff, and patients. Some of the examples have been pretty vanilla, others egregious; one resulted in a fatality. All have been written with the hope that the readers take home for free a lesson learned—that someone else’s unfortunate situation doesn’t have to be repeated.

But simply put, as anyone who reads my articles regularly will know, dentistry is a highly regulated healthcare business—and for good reason. Patient and staff health and safety depend on it. Let’s be careful out there!

If you’re unsure of your practice’s compliance status, contact Smart Training. Smart Training has assisted over 15,000 dental healthcare professionals with their compliance needs.