The Internet is a relatively safe place where it is unlikely you will see content that would offend you or that is illegal, such as videos celebrating animal abuse and child pornography images. This protection from offensive content is possible in part due to the efforts of Microsoft’s Online Safety Team. This group of employees works tirelessly to scour all user-generated content to ensure that nothing illegal or offensive remains on the portions of the Internet within Microsoft’s purview. However, for all of the hard work that the Online Safety Team does in cleaning up the Internet, Microsoft is now being accused of not providing the support that the Online Safety Team needs to keep doing their job.
Two former employees of Microsoft have sued the tech giant for failing to properly train them and subjecting them to such severe working conditions without any relief that they are permanently mentally injured. Henry Soto and Greg Blauert were both assigned to the Online Safety Team without being fully informed as to the nature of the work in which they would be engaging or the material that they would be seeing. Neither of them had ever done anything like this before.
After assigning Mr. Soto and Mr. Blauert to the Online Safety Team, Microsoft did not take the time to properly prepare them on what to expect and how the work may affect them. Furthermore, when both Mr. Blauert and Mr. Soto began exhibiting signs of emotional and mental distress as a direct result of their work, Microsoft failed to take satisfactory measures to prevent and/or counteract the damage being done by the work in which they were engaging. Rather, the company offered access to a counselor who was not trained to deal with PTSD and a general “wellness program” that provided suggestions for coping mechanisms that Mr. Blauert got in trouble for implementing. Both Mr. Soto and Mr. Blauert, as well as their fellow employees, allegedly alerted Microsoft as to the inadequacy of the pre-existing mental health support programs and provided suggestions on how Microsoft might change the programs to better meet the needs of those working as part of the Online Safety Team.
Unfortunately, all of these suggestions fell on deaf ears, and Microsoft did not make any changes to its mental health offerings, despite knowing their inadequacies. As a result, the mental health of Mr. Blauert and Mr. Soto deteriorated so much that both men could no longer work for the Online Safety Team. Not only were the two men incapable of continuing their jobs, but Mr. Soto and Mr. Blauert claim that they are no longer capable of doing work involving computers. Mr. Soto did attempt to work elsewhere in the company, but he was regularly approached by members of the Online Safety Team for guidance with their work tasks. Due to these reminders of his old work, Mr. Soto felt that he was unable to continue to work at his new position and went on medical leave. Mr. Blauert elected to go on medical leave after suffering a physical and mental breakdown while still working as part of the Online Safety Team.
Both men filed for workers compensation based on their mental distress, but their applications were denied predominantly because their conditions were not considered to be occupational diseases by the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries. Generally, labor departments such as Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries provide financial support in the form of workers compensation for occupational diseases and work-related injuries. However, labor departments do not always give workers compensation to people whose injury may have resulted from their work if it is not readily apparent that the injury from which the worker is suffering was exclusively and directly caused by their workplace. This is often the case with mental and emotional injuries, including PTSD and other forms of mental distress, because such injuries are difficult to trace back to a singular cause.
However, just because the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries denied the men’s applications does not mean that the men are without valid claims against Microsoft. It is true that an employee seeking compensation for an on-the-job injury or illness must exhaust the administrative solutions available to them before they are allowed to file a lawsuit against their employer in court. Mr. Soto and Mr. Blauert satisfied this requirement by filing complaints with the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries. If such a complaint is denied, then the injured employee is free to sue their employer for damages to compensate them for their injury. Since their complaints were denied, Mr. Soto and Mr. Blauert took the next step available to them in seeking out a remedy and commenced a lawsuit against Microsoft.
Microsoft Failed to Create a Safe Work Environment
In the complaint for the lawsuit, Mr. Blauert and Mr. Soto accuse Microsoft of being negligent against them as their employer. In Washington, all employers are required by state law to provide a safe workplace for their employees. This includes providing a workplace free from recognized hazards that are likely to cause or are currently causing serious harm or death. Employers must also establish, supervise, and enforce rules that lead to a healthy and safe work environment. Mr. Blauert, Mr. Soto, and other employees brought to Microsoft’s attention the harm being caused by the material to which the Online Safety Team was exposed, meaning that Microsoft was aware of the danger posed by the material. Since Microsoft knew about the danger posed by the material viewed on a constant basis by its employees, Microsoft was well aware that constant exposure to the material created a dangerous situation that the company needed to take measures to remedy. Microsoft even took some measures to attempt to make it a safer place, which shows that the company was aware that constant viewing of material coupled with a lack of proper preventative safety training was creating a hazardous workplace and negatively impacting its employees.
However, these measures were allegedly not enough to prevent Mr. Soto and Mr. Blauert from suffering irreparable psychological damage. The safeguards implemented by Microsoft were not as extensive and intense as the men and their fellow employees had requested. As previously mentioned, instead of hiring a psychologist or counselor who was trained in treating PTSD, from which both men claim to be suffering, Microsoft hired a counselor who was only trained to recognize “compassion fatigue.” Also, the safeguards were applied in an inconsistent manner. Mr. Blauert utilized one technique to cope with his mental distress that was recommended in a seminar that Microsoft held for its employees, only to later be chastised in an evaluation for employing the technique. Thus, Microsoft, while allegedly being aware of the hazardous conditions that the Online Safety Team was subjected to on a regular basis, appears to have failed to provide a safe working environment for the Online Safety Team by properly enacting measures to prevent or remedy the harm caused by the team’s work.
The only defense that Microsoft may be able to bring up is that Mr. Soto and Mr. Blauert subjected themselves voluntarily to further harm or aggravation of their harm by not attempting to transfer out of their positions on the Online Safety Team to less hazardous work elsewhere within the company. If Mr. Soto or Mr. Blauert had chosen to work in a different capacity within the company after first realizing the effect that their work was having on them, then they might not have suffered so severely and might have avoided developing PTSD. However, all of the members of the Online Safety Team are required to work in their positions for one and a half years before they are permitted to request a transfer to another position within the company. By requiring them to work at the position for more than a year, Microsoft blocked the members of the Online Safety Team from removing themselves from the toxic work environment through requesting a transfer out of their current work position. Mr. Blauert and Mr. Soto did stay on their jobs for longer than a year and a half. However, even when Mr. Soto transferred over to a new position, he still could not escape the work being done by the Online Safety Team, as members of the team contacted him for assistance and he felt obligated to assist them. Therefore, it is unlikely that a court will find that Mr. Blauert and Mr. Soto contributed to their mental distress by staying in their positions, as it is likely that the mental distress they are suffering from would have been inflicted upon them before they had the freedom to transfer away from the Online Safety Team and exposure to the toxic work still would be unavoidable even if they transferred away after a year and a half.
Ultimately, This Can Be Hard to Resolve
Employers are far more capable than employees to control the safety of a work environment, which is why the federal and state government have placed responsibility on employers to make sure that the workplace is safe for their employees. Whenever a workplace is unsafe for any employee, it should be brought to the employer’s attention. If the employer fails to remedy the dangerous circumstances and make the workplace safe, then the employer should be held responsible for any injuries incurred by their employees as a result of the dangerous work environment, either through a lawsuit or through workers compensation. If you have been injured at work because of a dangerous workplace environment, then you should contact an employment lawyer to assist you in getting financial compensation to help cover your medical bills and other expenses until you can return to work.
Authored by Kristen Johnson, LegalMatch Legal Writer