Three contracting firms based out of Austin, Texas and operating in San Antonio were each issued a “Willful Violation” by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for deliberately allowing their employees to be exposed to asbestos. Willful violations mean that the employees didn’t suffer exposure as a result of a mistake in procedure or human error – but because the firms simply didn't take the time to offer proper training or follow OSHA standards.
On May 29th, 2015, OSHA inspectors visited a construction site in San Antonio, Texas where the Beverly Apartments were being renovated. The inspectors found that workers were being told to “rip up and remove flooring material” that was composed of 30% asbestos fibers. OSHA determined that the employees were not working "under the supervision of a competent person" and that no "monitoring was performed to determine accurately the airborne concentrations of asbestos."
This is a wholly unnecessary and inexcusable violation because construction is a dangerous field and workers depend on their employers to keep them safe. Alejandro Porter, the San Antonio area director expressed his open disappointment in an official statement:
“This commercial building renovator is responsible for protecting workers from asbestos hazards and failed to do so, despite previous citations for asbestos exposure. There is simply no excuse for continuing to expose workers to this danger."
One Eighty Construction Inc., FBZ Broadway LP, and Roscoe Properties Inc. were all fined by OSHA for their putting their employees in unnecessary danger. All 3 companies are owned by Jason Berkowitz, who has a history of putting his workers in life-threatening working conditions. One of his offending companies, FBZ Broadway LP, had been previously fined in April of 2015 for the exact same violation.
A Deadly Trend of Deliberate Asbestos Exposure
The risks of asbestos exposure for construction workers are well documented and often cause the development of deadly diseases like mesothelioma. Mesothelioma can spread throughout the lining of the lung and worsen for over 20 years before symptoms show, making it difficult to get insurance coverage or workers' compensation. By the time Mesothelioma symptoms do show, it is often too late for the victim to receive effective treatment. By exposing employees to asbestos fibers, Berkowitz and his construction firms are consigning hundreds of people to excruciating and slow deaths.
The flagrant disregard for human health in San Antonio follows hot on the heels of a similar case in Okawville, Illinois. The Kehrer Brothers Construction Company knowingly hired non-English speaking workers and made them rip up asbestos-based flooring without proper protection. Dr. David Michaels, the assistant secretary of labor for OSHA described the case as "outrageous, illegal behavior." Dr. Michaels also revealed that Joseph Kehrer, the head of the construction company, "threatened to fire his employees if they spoke with our investigators."
More outrageous than either of these specific incidents is the fact that employees all over the country and in a variety of fields are consistently exposed to asbestos. Even in Washington DC, entire teams of workers were forced to work in conditions where asbestos levels reached "30 or 40 times the legal limit" in the early 2000s. Some of these workers, like pipe welder Jim Thayer, worked for over 20 years without a mask or respirator and eventually developed asbestosis and mesothelioma. Even though Mr. Thayer was an employee of the federal government and worked directly on the nation’s Capitol Building, none of his health issues were covered by insurance and he was forced to sue for compensation as well as pay for his own medical expenses.
Employers Must Stop Compromising the Health of Their Employees
Employers in both the private and public sector in the United States cannot continue to abuse their workers. Government agencies shouldn’t have to physically visit work sites to ensure employees aren’t being tricked into performing potentially lethal jobs. Upstanding companies should be hiring asbestos specialists who use state-of-the-art equipment to remove and contain the mineral fiber.
It’s soon to be 2016, and in the most powerful and prominent nation in the world – one that has seemingly limitless access to new technologies – there’s no excuse for deliberately hurting and killing workers with outdated business practices.