Construction Co. Fined Millions for Risking Migrant Workers' Lives
In a case exposing risky practices in the construction industry, an Illinois company was slammed with nearly $2 Million in fines by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) for deliberately exposing a group of Mexican construction workers to asbestos hazards.
“They spoke no English. He drove them to jobs. He set up a housing camp for them. They were at his mercy,” said Dr. David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, in a statement. “This is outrageous, illegal behavior.”
The workers came into the U.S. on an HB-2 visa – a type of work visa that is intended to help employers when they can't find qualified locals. In this case, hiring foreign laborers helped Kehrer Brothers Construction, an Illinois-based construction company, to avoid regulator's questions about its unethical and dangerous practices. OSHA officials allege employees were told they would be fired and deported if they cooperated with investigators.
The workers were hired to help with the renovations of a public school in Okawville, IL in the winter of 2015. Though government officials have known for decades of the threat posed by asbestos, materials containing asbestos remain widespread in older buildings across the U.S. Exposure can occur in many different ways, but one of the most common is when asbestos-laden dust is released by sanding or tearing open materials which contain it. Breathing in the small particles of this deadly mineral fiber can cause various types of lung disease, as well as an often fatal form of cancer called mesothelioma.
Just as the dangers of asbestos have long been known, so too are the safety measures that employers must take to keep their workers protected when handling dangerous asbestos-containing materials. Government recommendations for removing asbestos-containing materials include: covering all horizontal surfaces with thick plastic sheeting, installing fans, ventilation systems, and water misters to help keep down dust, and issuing workers with protective clothing and masks.
None of those recommendations were followed in the Kehrer Brothers case. Instead, OSHA investigators found 40 “serious” or “willful” violations of known safety procedures. Workers weren't issued the proper safety equipment to help them avoid inhaling asbestos fibers. There were no fans or filtration systems set up to help keep down asbestos dust and no hazardous material suits or coveralls were provided to prevent contamination of clothing.
That last egregious act could wind up impacting far more people than just the on-site workers. Asbestos fibers easily cling to fabric, creating a risk of secondary exposure for anyone who encountered the workers while they were wearing their work clothes. Fibers may also linger in carpets and other fabrics, potentially exposing anyone who occupies an apartment or trailer where contaminated clothing has been. A single fiber can be enough to cause illness. However, because it may take decades for asbestos-related diseases and cancers to develop, it can be extremely difficult to trace these secondary sources of exposure.
Kehrer Brothers is not the first construction company to exploit its workers in this way. In actuality, the trend has been going on for decades. In a 2014 New York case, OSHA enforced $2.3 Million in fines on another negligent construction company. But foreign workers may be particularly vulnerable to this form of exploitation, as their lack of English language skills and ignorance of existing worker protections may stop them from reporting violations.
Kehrer Brothers has signaled its intention to appeal the fines. But the company's reckless actions in this case are part of a long history of violations. The recent case was the 11th time OSHA has investigated the company's work.
Their actions in Okawville may lead to more than just fines. OSHA has already added the company to its Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP) – a level of extra scrutiny reserved for companies which have “demonstrated indifference to their OSH Act obligations by willful, repeated, or failure-to-abate violations.” More importantly, the agency has turned the results of their investigation over to the Department of Justice (DOJ) in an effort to seek jail time for the company's owners.
“We at OSHA will do everything in our power to ensure this employer stops endangering his employees,” said Michaels.