Some Asbestos Contractors Turn to the Downtrodden for Cheap Labor

Posted on May 24, 2016

We have reported in the past about the fines contractors face when they skirt the laws and requirements for safely managing asbestos removal. When contractors try to cut corners and costs, unfortunately, they place innocent people in danger of serious health risks. While these cases have been few and far between, that may not be the case anymore according to a recent news report.

The Detroit Free Press ran a two-part article earlier this month reporting on the growing incidences of Michigan contractors preying on homeless, young and inexperienced workers to remove asbestos during construction projects. In one case, the crew, who were working on converting a church into a school building, were overcome with asbestos dust when the ceiling fell on them.

“It came down so thick you couldn’t even see,” said one of the men interviewed for the article.

According to his interview with the Detroit Press, none of the workers were wearing any form of protective gear such as goggles, masks, or hard hats. The man also claims other workers on the project were people who were facing serious issues such as criminal charges or dependency on alcohol or drugs. Some of these men were paid cash of just $50 per day.

“Life is hard enough, and they [the contractors] just took advantage of them,” said the man, who was facing criminal charges himself.

The contractor was investigated by Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and taken to trial – ultimately, he received a five-year jail term.

Removal of asbestos should only be done by trained asbestos abatement workers outfitted with proper protective equipment. Federal and state guidelines are in place to protect workers and the public from exposure. There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Asbestos is a known carcinogen and is proven to cause mesothelioma, a terminal cancer, lung cancer and other respiratory diseases in people who have been exposed to the material. The frustrating thing about asbestos illnesses is that it is impossible to predict when it will strike. According to research, it can take 15-60 years before symptoms of an asbestos-related disease become apparent.

Through the 1970s, asbestos was widely used in products used in the construction of buildings, including schools, apartments and houses. Asbestos-containing products included roofing materials, ceiling tiles and insulation. Unfortunately, as shown by this investigative report, the risk of being unknowingly exposed to the mineral continues to this day.

The case above is not the only one. Dan Somenauer, business manager of Taylor-based Abatement Workers Regional Local 207 union has seen cases where he suspected untrained workers, and potentially undocumented immigrants, were removing asbestos. Although with no solid proof, he could only ask the project leaders to stop the use of them, but he could not go to authorities. He estimates 40% of abatement projects are done with improperly trained and equipped workers, according to the Detroit Press research.

The Detroit Press reports that Craig Gestring, an assistant U.S. attorney in Rochester, N.Y., said he has prosecuted similar cases where unskilled workers, who have no knowledge of the dangers or issues they may face, were used so the contractors could save money. He adds that he believes the problem will continue to grow along with the number of demolition and renovation projects – and as long as contractors try to cut corners to make more money.

This practice is illegal, and the penalties and fines are stiff for the contractors who violate the laws and place innocent and vulnerable people in danger.

Approximately 3,000 Americans are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year, and thousands more die of lung cancer related to asbestos exposure. Previous asbestos exposure leaves victims open to a lifetime potential for developing an asbestos-related disease.

Sources:
The Detroit Free press two-part story:
Asbestos contractors target homeless, other vulnerable people
Deadly asbestos: Workers put in jeopardy, but state won’t get tough