The U.S. Department of Labor is suing a Billings general contractor, saying the business wrongly fired an engineer who warned about safety concerns at an out-of-state project.
The whistleblower lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Billings recently against Agri-Systems, a Billings-based general contracting company. The company, at 1300 Minnesota Ave., does business as ASI Industrial.
Bob Hamlin, president and CEO of the company, said Tuesday he had not yet been served with the complaint.
Hamlin said he was not aware of any serious injuries stemming from the Illinois project at issue in the lawsuit.
According to the complaint, ASI Industrial fired electrical engineer Steve Petry in February 2018 after he announced plans to alert Illinois authorities to safety concerns about a feed mill project he was involved with in Chrisman, Illinois.
The firing violated protections for workers who lodge complaints under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the government said in its lawsuit.
In a February 2018 email to various company employees, including Hamlin, Petry said his concerns about safety at the Illinois site had fallen “on deaf ears” and that he had no choice but to alert the state.
Those concerns included that the wrong size of electrical wire and wrong type of insulation had been installed.
Petry was also worried because no ground fault testing had been done on one of the site’s electrical service lines. He’d emailed other company employees, including Hamlin, that this was a “big safety concern.”
“…None of us want to live knowing someone got hurt or killed due to our hasty decisions,” Petry had written.
Approximately 15 minutes after Petry sent the email saying he'd alert Illinois authorities, the president came into his office, the complaint stated.
“Mr. Hamlin told Mr. Petry that ASI could not have Mr. Petry reporting safety issues to the authorities, so Mr. Hamlin terminated Mr. Petry’s employment with ASI,” the complaint stated.
ASI maintains that Petry resigned and that ASI did not fire him, according to the lawsuit.
The Labor Department is seeking a court order requiring ASI to reinstate Petry in his previous position, pay restitution for lost wages and compensatory damages for emotional distress.
The lawsuit also asks the court to enjoin ASI Industrial from violating the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
Agri-Systems, the formal name for the Billings business, has seven OSHA complaints, ranging in date from 2009 to 2012.
Montana ranks among the worst states in the country for workplace injuries and illnesses, for reasons that continue to elude state officials.