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Workers: Asbestos danger
Contractors ignoring safety rules, they say
By MIKE KELLER
May. 30, 2006 - The health of laborers and the public are at risk because companies are skirting asbestos-handling laws while regulators look the other way, say workers engaged in the Coast's cleanup.
Current employees of contractors spoke to the Sun Herald. They refused to use their names for fear of retaliation or dismissal.
All said they had been trained and certified in proper asbestos-abatement techniques with a combined total of more than 15 years in the business.
All worked for different companies operating at different points of structural inspection, demolition and debris removal.
The violations they reported have come together to create what they said is a tempest of long-term health danger, one that neither the public nor workers even know that they need to take shelter from.
Asbestos is a natural mineral fiber once used in building insulation and is still used in some manufactured products like brake pads. Its use was heavily restricted in 1981.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control lists the material as a source of serious diseases like asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.
Danger lies in the clearing and hauling of asbestos-containing buildings. Workers descend on the area with heavy equipment like backhoes and debris trucks. They tear the buildings apart and load debris, creating clouds of pulverized construction materials they breathe in and that scatters with the wind throughout the neighborhood.
Public health, according to the employees, was further compromised by open-air debris trucks hauling and scattering along the roads potentially asbestos-containing refuse to landfills meant only for safe construction and demolition waste.
The contractors who came forward said workers are not wearing the proper equipment on structures that may contain asbestos. They said workers should be wearing face masks and full body suits.
Other workers said regular dust masks were not good enough for buildings that may contain asbestos and contractors should be handing out dual cartridge respirators to employees.
They said the disposable face masks commonly used on sites were as useful at blocking asbestos fibers as wearing no protection at all.
Victoria Cintra, a spokeswoman for Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, said she also knows of widespread violations and the immigrant laborers her group represents are being put at unacceptably high risk.
"These violations are terrible," Cintra said. "People are going into houses and removing God knows what and they are doing it at best with Latex gloves. (The companies and regulators) have no regard for the future that the immigrant community will be going through in 15 or 20 years."
The current employees said the most troubling and widespread violations involved incomplete or ignored asbestos inspections of structures and unsafe handling of debris.
Many of their complaints, though, centered on a lack of oversight and enforcement by the government agencies that are supposed to protect workers and the public.
According to spokesmen with both Mississippi's Department of Environmental Quality and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, neither agency is sending enforcement officers to make sure that employers are complying with asbestos regulations.
"Specifically, in regards to asbestos, we do not have OSHA compliance officers south of I-10 with that as an assignment, no," said Jesse Baynes, OSHA assistant area director in Jackson.
"We are not in an enforcement mode south of I-10 unless there is an investigation of a fatality or a complaint. It is still an area under a federally declared disaster."
Baynes said OSHA had received asbestos complaints but none with locations of ongoing violations that they needed to investigate.
"We have heard that employers are not always reaching standards but not with the specificity that we can go out and check to see whether they really are or not," Baynes said.
Both agencies maintain that complying with asbestos regulations is the responsibility of the companies doing the work and not that of the government. They say they will enforce the laws when a company is caught shirking its duties under regulation.
"Everything we do involves (companies) self-reporting," said Dwight Wylie, with DEQ's air division. "They file stuff with us. We don't check."
Wylie said the state has been monitoring for airborne asbestos and has not detected any that causes them to worry.
"Any residence could have some asbestos in it," Wylie said. "We have been cautious and trying to anticipate any problems. Our policy tells contractors that depending on whether a building had asbestos siding determines where the debris from that building goes."
But the supervisors for contractors who came forward said using a building's siding to determine whether it contains asbestos is wrong and negligent.
Asbestos siding, called transite, contains the least dangerous incarnation of asbestos because it is held together in a hard form and not easily released into the air. Inspection supervisors said the really dangerous asbestos would be found inside of structures as loose insulation, around pipes and as spray-on ceiling insulation.
They said that looking inside the structures was not part of the curbside inspections, leaving contaminated structures like booby traps for the workers who would eventually demolish and haul them away.
Another regulatory loophole that companies and municipalities can slip through involves whether a structure still stands or Katrina's surge and wind tore it asunder.
"Debris on the ground is not subject to regulation," Wylie said.
Work site supervisors said the law defines a structure with two walls and a roof as a structural demolition project while a house that has been flattened is debris.
That distinction has opened up a de facto incentive to call structures debris and get it into unspecialized landfills as quickly as possible.
The employees who came forward said they knew of incidents in which structures with easily identifiable asbestos siding that were standing were destroyed and were treated as debris.
The employees said the companies doing that were in the business of hauling debris and anything that slowed them down meant less profit.
What the law says
Federal worker safety laws explicitly say that structures built before 1981 should be assumed to contain asbestos:
"Employers and building owners are required to treat installed (thermal insulation) and sprayed on and troweled-on surfacing materials as (asbestos-containing material) in buildings constructed no later than 1980 for purposes of this standard."
- U.S. Dept. of Labor Code 1910.1001(j)(1)