Untrained Homeless, Prisoners, and Janitors Remove Deadly Asbestos in Michigan

Across the country, fly-by-night asbestos contractors are targeting desperate, vulnerable people to work the deadliest of jobs. In one example, a warehouse owner in Rochester, NY hired untrained workers, including a 16-year-old boy, to load up and actually work inside of a giant dumpster filled with asbestos without any protection.

The scariest part about that? There is no safe level of asbestos exposure, and only 1 fiber can potentially be enough to cause the debilitating and incurable cancer, mesothelioma.

In another, more recent, example – in Bay City, Michigan – a contractor recruited workers directly from a homeless shelter. His employees included former prisoners and current drug addicts, all of them “desperate for any kind of money,” according to Roy Richard Jr., one of the crew members.

None of the Michigan workers had asbestos training – and many of them didn't know they were even handling asbestos in the first place. The contractor offered no protective clothing or respirators to his crew. Workers threw the asbestos into plain trash bags instead of airtight containers, meaning the deadly fibers undoubtedly floated off into the nearby community.

The conditions at the work site were so bad that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) charged the contractor with enough violations to earn him a 5-year prison sentence. However, the same contractor received only a measly $300 fine from Michigan’s state-run Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA). As it turns out, state agencies like MIOSHA repeatedly lighten punishments and cut deals with corrupt contractors.

Light Penalties for Deadly Risks

An investigation conducted by the Detroit Free Press looked at 4,000 different asbestos violations, and discovered that more than 66 percent went unpunished by MIOSHA. Of those companies that did get punished – even among repeat offenders – none received the maximum penalty of $70,000.

At Annapolis High School in Dearborn Heights, MI, school district administrators made custodians Theresa Ely and Rob Smith dry sand the floors, but never told them the floors were made of asbestos. Since the school district had already lied about the risk of asbestos exposure, it didn’t bother providing the custodians with any safety equipment either.

"We swallowed [the dust]. It would get gritty in your teeth," Ely said. Ely swallowed so much asbestos that she had to rinse it out of her mouth by gargling Pepsi.

MIOSHA found the school district guilty of several, severe labor violations, nevertheless, the agency still reduced the school’s penalty from the maximum of $13,500, down to a measly $1,800.

Public Health professor David Rosner labeled MIOSHA's fines as, "[penalties] without meaning," and for good reason – if employers stand to make more money by hiring untrained employees than they will lose by paying fines, they’ll always go after the money.

Making Deals with the Corporate Devil

Former OSHA official, John Newquist asked of MIOSHA, "why are we making a deal when companies expose their employees to a known killer of thousands and thousands of workers?" Newquist is right: asbestos exposure kills at least 11,000 Americans a year, by mesothelioma or other asbestos-triggered diseases.

Not just contractors, but major asbestos-product manufacturers have known about the dangers of asbestos since at least the 1930s, and have lied to employees to keep them working in dangerous environments.

So why the special treatment? Why does MIOSHA insist on letting even more corrupt companies off with hardly a slap on the wrist?

According to former director of MIOSHA, Martha Yoder, the agency believes that reducing the fines issued to contractors, provides them with the resources to finish abatement jobs more quickly. The agency believes that finishing the project as quickly as possible is the safest option.

One of the many problems with this theory is that untrained, unprotected workers don’t just expose themselves to health risks; when they release asbestos fibers into the open air, they potentially harm the surrounding community as well.

Former OSHA policy analyst, Celeste Monforton also disagrees with the idea that lighter penalties allow abatement projects to finish more quickly. She argues, "exposure has already happened and there's no way to abate that. ... When you've already released asbestos fibers, you can't put that cat back in the bag."

Moving Forward

Michigan’s asbestos problem is intense. The decline and renovation of Detroit alone has been described by officials as “the largest blight removal operation ever attempted nationwide.” At the moment, Michigan doesn’t seem to have the funds to regulate such a massive undertaking as MIOSHA has only 4 inspectors for the entire state.

Really, the story in Michigan is the same as that of the U.S. as a whole — companies skimp on protective gear and training to save money. In the meantime, hundreds of workers are exposed to asbestos and end up suffering. If something isn’t done soon, brutal diseases like mesothelioma could be on the rise once again.

Sokolove Law Team

Contributing Authors

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Last modified: September 25, 2020