Oregon health agency blocked full reporting of potentially fatal disease, whistleblower charges
Crystal Weston claims in a lawsuit she was demoted from a promotion after insisting that the agency recognize a lung disease
Exposure to silica dust particles from brick, stone or rock work can cause silicosis, an incurable and potentially fatal disease. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
A former employee in the public health division of the Oregon Health Authority who spearheaded a campaign against a relatively rare occupational lung disease is suing the agency, alleging discrimination and whistleblower retaliation.
The lawsuit, filed Monday in Multnomah County Circuit Court, seeks $250,000.
Lawyers for Crystal Weston, a former program coordinator with the Occupational Public Health Pesticide Exposure Safety and Tracking Program, allege in the suit that she persuaded the agency at the end of 2019 to recognize silicosis as a reportable condition, meaning it would be tracked and investigated. But the complaint said the health authority redesignated its status, which meant that health officials would not share data with Oregon work safety officials and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about cases.
The health authority did not immediately respond Tuesday to a request for comment.
The lawsuit said that Weston was hired by the public health division on Feb. 20, 2019. Though she has left the agency, she is still listed on OHA’s website as the lead contact for the pesticide tracking program. The complaint said she “worked tirelessly” to persuade the authority to recognize silicosis as a reportable condition.
The disease is caused by inhaling crystalline silica dust particles from brick, cement, stone, rock or other materials. Workers involved in masonry, construction, sandblasting and manufacturing are most at risk. According to the American Lung Association, 2.3 million people a year in the United States are exposed to silica dust particles on the job.
Over time, exposure to the particles scars the lungs and impedes breathing. The condition is not curable and can be fatal.
The CDC recognizes silicosis as a disease that medical providers should report and recommends that public health officials classify it that way. But before Weston’s campaign, it was not listed as a reportable condition in Oregon so medical cases didn’t need to be shared with the agency.
That changed in early 2020, according to the suit, when Oregon Health Authority’s Science and Epidemiology Council agreed in a unanimous vote that Oregon should consider silicosis a reportable condition.
The disease is relatively rare. Only about 50,000 cases a year are reported in the country, but Weston was worried about people in Oregon developing the disease, the complaint said.
The designation allowed for the health agency to share data with Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division, which investigates workplace safety complaints, and notify the CDC. But soon after the vote, Weston was told by Collette Young, administrator of the Center for Public Health Practice, and other public health leaders that it would be redesignated to a “special studies” category, which doesn’t allow for coordination with safety officials, the complaint said.
“Weston was shocked, frustrated and disturbed by this unexplainable reversal,” the complaint said. “Weston informed Young and others in attendance that the decision was irregular, unethical and a violation of the law. She argued that the failure to respect the designation of silicosis as a reportable condition by the Science and Epidemiology Council could have sweeping impacts to public health, particularly for vulnerable populations and would have a disproportionate impact on communities of color.”
Young said that adding another reportable condition would create a burden for medical providers, the complaint said.
Weston told the group that public health leaders did not appear to take public health recommendations as seriously when they came from environmental health staff, adding that the decision on silicosis was not “a good use of taxpayer funding” of environmental health work, the complaint said. Environmental health officials try to keep the public safe from toxins and harmful chemicals in the air, water and food.
The lawsuit said Weston’s insistence aggravated Young, who was “visibly and audibly angry that Weston had brought up reasons why the action was not right.”
Young is not named as a defendant in the complaint.
In the following months, Weston continued to investigate silicosis, but worried about retaliation, the complaint said.
After the pandemic hit, Weston started working on data management for the incident management team that was created to deal with Covid-19, the lawsuit said, adding that she was praised for her performance.
She was later inexplicably removed from that assignment, the lawsuit said, indicating that Young was behind that decision. The lawsuit said Weston was later demoted from another assignment. It blamed Young and other unnamed managers.
The demotion meant losing $1,000 in pay a month, the complaint said.
Weston eventually met with Young and another manager to discuss her performance and prospects for leadership, the complaint said.
“Young was openly hostile, aggressive and demeaning during this interaction,” the complaint alleged.
Distressed, Weston reported to an agency personnel official that she was being blocked in her career, the complaint said. It added that he was “aghast” but “failed to take meaningful action.”
Ultimately, Weston resigned, the complaint said. It did not specify when.
“It was evident she would never be allowed to advance at OHA due to her response to her opposition to the reclassification of silicosis,” the complaint said.
It alleged that she “continues to suffer from insomnia, anxiety and emotional distress.”
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