Former VA employee says he worked around deadly, unstable chemicals

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A man fired from the Memphis VA said dangerous chemicals he unknowingly worked around could have killed him.

Sean Higgins is a whistleblower and thinks he lost his job because he spoke out.

Higgins worked as a logistics technician. He was fired earlier this month for inappropriate behavior, but thinks the real reason for his termination was his whistleblowing.

He anonymously reported problems at the Memphis VA for months, but Wednesday, Higgins decided to go public and show his face.

“I presented my case before Dr. Knight,” he said. “Three days before the VA secretary’s visit, I was terminated for inappropriate conduct when I questioned management about their shortcomings.”

Higgins said those shortcomings could have long-term impacts. He claims the hospital isn’t providing a safe work environment for employees.

Higgins said he was in charge of decommissioning a research lab in 2012. After working there for two months, he noticed unlabeled chemicals, including dry picric acid, a high-powered explosive.

“I was exposed to 23 orphan and unknown chemicals, to which the agency refused to annotate my health care rights to show what I was actually exposed to,” Higgins said.

So far, most complaints about the hospital have been focused on patient care, but Higgins said workers were at risk, too.

“The agency was cited for numerous violations of mold, mildew and asbestos,” he told WREG.

The VA was cited for asbestos in 2011.

Higgins said he is considering filing a lawsuit against the VA.

While he would take his job back if he could get it, he said he has lost all faith in management.

“I thought the government would keep its promise to protect whistleblowers,” he said.

The Memphis VA told WREG they support the right of whistleblowers and staff to speak out without fear of retribution. Officials refused to talk about Higgins’ firing.

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