MIOSHA Accused of Failing to Act on Workers Being Exposed to Asbestos
With the growing number of blighted buildings being demolished or slated for demolition in Detroit and elsewhere around Michigan, more and more contractors are looking to expand their businesses to meet that demand. Since asbestos was very commonly used in older homes, it needs to be removed before a home can be demolished, so many contractors have started offering asbestos removal services. While this sounds like great news on the surface since it means that dangerous abandoned buildings are being removed while creating new jobs, there is a dark side to the story.
The Detroit Free Press recently reported that many contractors are recruiting inexperienced, untrained workers to handle asbestos removal jobs without providing them with the training or protective gear and tools needed to do their job safely. Even worse, the Detroit Free Press reports that many contractors who are fined by MIOSHA for these violations often don’t pay their fines or fix the violations and that MIOSHA lacks the resources needed to enforce their rules.
In the Detroit Free Press’s investigation, they found dozens of cases where contractors recruited untrained workers by targeting vulnerable people they knew would be willing to work for low wages and would be less likely to complain about unsafe working conditions, such as homeless people, undocumented immigrants, ex-convicts, teenagers, and college students. In some cases, these workers were never even told they would be handling asbestos and were forced to work wearing their street clothes instead of being given protective jumpsuits and respirators. In other cases, proper decontamination procedures were not followed or asbestos-contaminated debris was not disposed of properly, which could have put even more people at risk of unknowingly being exposed to it.
Exposure to asbestos can lead to a multitude of health problems, including cancer and lung disease, which might not become apparent until decades after exposure. Ideally, when MIOSHA becomes aware of situations such as these, where employers are showing such a blatant disregard for worker safety, the employer would be ordered to pay a steep fine and be ordered to resolve the issue. However, the Detroit Free Press found that between February 2009 and February 2016, 96% of the safety violations MIOSHA dealt with resulted in penalties of less $1,000 or less. If an employer agrees to quickly resolve a problem, MIOSHA can reduce the cost of their penalty, but in many cases, the employer never even pays the reduced fine or fixes the problem.
Representatives of MIOSHA told the Detroit Free Press their method of issuing penalties has the goal of encouraging employers to quickly remedy problems, but many experts are highly critical of that idea. Celeste Monforton, a lecturer at George Washington University’s School of Public Health and a former employee of the federal OSHA, told the Detroit Free Press it encourages “fly-by-night operations who risk people’s health because they may get away with it.” Monforton also pointed out that encouraging employers to quickly resolve problems is too little too late when something like asbestos exposure is involved since there’s no way to undo a person’s exposure to it.
A key problem MIOSHA faces is the lack of resources to be able to oversee all the asbestos removal projects currently happening around Michigan. Currently, MIOSHA only has four inspectors on staff, down from the five they had during the 2015 fiscal year. Martha Yoder, a former MIOSHA director, told the Detroit Free Press that MIOSHA’s duty with asbestos removal jobs is to do spot-checking, but it’s difficult for MIOSHA to even do that when over the past seven years, they issued 80 citations to businesses for failing to notify them at least 10 days before beginning an asbestos abatement project. Not a single one of those citations resulted in the maximum $10,000 penalty and many repeat offenders received penalties of less than $1,000. Federal OSHA is often stricter than MIOSHA when it comes to issuing penalties.