In 2015, registered asbestos removal projects in Massachusetts hit a record high: an increase of over 50 percent in 5 years.
Clearly, with federal and state regulations in place to protect licensed asbestos removers, this is great for business. But there are also many cases, in Massachusetts and the rest of the U.S., where those who are not trained properly in asbestos removal are exposed to the mineral.
As the housing market grows by leaps and bounds while the economy still, in part, recovers from the recession, renovation is on the rise. Industry experts believe that revenue in construction and renovation is due to grow by 3.3 percent every year through 2020. But as demand for this type of work increases, unsuspecting construction and demolition workers are routinely exposed to decades-old building materials containing asbestos.
Unfortunately, workers are often under the illusion that they are working in safe environments. In reality, employers continue to ignore mandated safety standards to get jobs done quicker and to cut costs. In Massachusetts alone, there were over 300 safety violations on job sites in the last 5 years. These were all serious enough to result in fines of $2,500 or higher. But state agencies were not stringent about preventing recurrences every time – meaning repeat offenses are not uncommon.
Companies have also violated safety measures elsewhere in the U.S. For example, the United States Steel Corp. exposed employees to asbestos hazards on multiple counts. In fact, asbestos hazards – and employers’ failure to inform employees or provide adequate protection – continue to be a countrywide problem.
The 3rd Wave of Asbestos-Caused Disease
Many asbestos removers and demolition workers are native to Central American areas and immigrated illegally. These workers feel unable to complain when privy to asbestos hazards for fear of employment termination and/or deportation.
But even if they could, they would need to go through the hassle of proving certain circumstances, such as that the asbestos wasn’t already damaged before its removal. For many, agreeing to work in dangerous conditions is a much simpler option.
Since the 1940s, millions of workers in America have been exposed to asbestos. The latest data highlights that at least 4,000 people in the U.S. died from asbestos-related disease in 2014. Today, it’s anyone’s guess how many workers exposed in recent years will also eventually develop conditions – the most serious of which are lethal.
Workers in certain occupations who are exposed to asbestos can expect higher risk of contracting diseases such as asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung cancer. Mesothelioma, a relatively rare form of cancer of the lungs, is incurable. The condition has a very long latency period, meaning it can take as many as 50 years to diagnose.
What the industry is currently dealing with is the so-called 3rd wave of asbestos disease. It was predicted in the 1990s at a New York conference that asbestos lurking dormant within certain products and materials would eventually be unleashed to the general public. This could only mean more cases of conditions such as mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer.
“The consumption [of asbestos] has gone down by over a thousand-fold,” said Barry Castleman, an environmental consultant, referring to a partial ban of asbestos-containing products by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “The problem is the asbestos is still there.”
What Will It Take for Companies to Act Legitimately?
Up until recently, federal and state monitoring of asbestos safety was considerably lax, despite the boom in abatement and demolition projects. This allowed employers to cut corners – for example, neglecting to hire licensed inspectors to predetermine the presence of asbestos before demolition work begins.
However, last year, state agencies began increasing onsite inspections, which could be good news for workers. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), for example, conducted 1,199 inspections in 2015-16. The Department of Labor Standards (DLS) has also reported increases in inspections.
As well as a minimum fine of $2,500, the DEP also fines $5,000 for repeat offenses. But is this enough to deter employers from perpetual violations? It seems not.
“Some employers budget-in fines as the price of doing business,” said Cora Roelofs, an occupational health researcher who led a 2013 state study on asbestos-related deaths. “They assume there will be fines.”
Apart from U.S. Steel Corp., which was fined $170,000 for repeat violations, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has cited several other companies for ignoring regulations. While there is a vested interest in turning a blind eye to asbestos exposure, this trend is likely to continue.
Will EPA Efforts Prevail?
The last several decades have been a long, uphill battle to curb the misery and pain caused by asbestos. This is not to mention the betrayal of disingenuous companies trying to cover the problem up. But these companies aren’t the only adversaries to fight – federal intervention might be.
Last year, President Obama signed the Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act (also known as the TSCA Reform Act) in a historic effort to ban asbestos for good. The bill “reformed” rules enforced by the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976, which allowed the use of over 85,000 dangerous chemicals in U.S. commerce.
This new Act made a powerful move in the right direction, persuading the EPA to take chemical investigation and regulation more seriously – and asbestos is now a top priority.
Yet, whether it will remain a priority is uncertain as president-elect Donald Trump steps in to retool a new EPA administration. During his campaign, Trump asserted his ideas about imposing limits on the EPA and, deeper into his past, he even praised the use of asbestos.
This has many Americans fearful that the regulation of toxic chemicals will drop again, or even that the new president will advocate their use. If so, America can surely expect even more asbestos-related deaths than usual.
Of course, employers have their part to play. It is important that companies pay firm attention to federal requirements for renovating and demolishing buildings. But in the meantime, the best that asbestos-afflicted construction workers can hope for is to join the hundreds of thousands of others who have sought justice through litigation.