Philadelphia Inquirer

Workers Removing Asbestos Often Must Choose Between Unsafe Conditions Or No Job

Rich Heidorn Jr.

October 27, 1995

When it's cold, you freeze. When it's hot, you can lose 10 pounds sweating inside a Tyvek suit and respirator mask. Injuries from electrical shocks and falls are a risk. And all the while, supervisors are constantly pressing you to work faster - so you take shortcuts that threaten your safety.

Removing asbestos, says Mark Vink, vice president of loss control for Fidelity Environmental Insurance Co., is "the most horrendous work you can imagine."

Yet thousands of laborers - many of them undocumented immigrants from South America and Eastern Europe - have eagerly sought the work.

Some probably will die from it.

Although they are covered by rigorous health and safety regulations, workers say the regulations are frequently ignored because of inadequate enforcement, contractors who cut corners and labor leaders who don't do enough to protect their workers.

Bob Twombly, a Berlin, N.J., contractor, who wrote a book on asbestos abatement, said although the industry has improved over the last 10 years, he frequently sees "lowballing" on public jobs subject to competitive bidding.

"Some of these companies, you can't figure out how they compete" without cutting corners, Twombly said.

The only way for a legitimate company to survive, he says, is to work in the private sector, where companies limit bidders to "short lists" of contractors who do good work. "In the private sector, you ... get people who are willing to pay a little more."

Workers told The Philadelphia Inquirer they are frequently forced to remove asbestos dry - an exceedingly dangerous practice - or to use other unsafe practices to keep their jobs. Regulations require that asbestos be kept wet during removal to prevent fibers from becoming airborne and inhaled.

Breathing asbestos fibers can cause lung cancer, asbestosis - often fatal diseases of the lungs that make breathing progressively more difficult - and mesothelioma, an incurable cancer that attacks the lining of the lungs and intestinal tract.

John Vera, of Jersey City, N.J., recalled a 1993 removal at a Connecticut high school. "If you asked a cowworker for a tool, you barely could see him because the dust was so dense," Vera said.

"The combination of removing (asbestos) dry and improper respiratory protection is most certainly a prescription for disaster," says Myles O'Malley, executive director of the White Lung Association of New Jersey, a nonprofit agency that trains asbestos workers. "There's no doubt that we're going to see mesothelioma and lung cancer in this population. What percentage I can't say. It all depends on what their actual exposures are."

"A lot of these folks may get sick," agrees Reginald C. Jordan, a Raleigh, N.C., certified industrial hygienist and former member of the accreditation committee for the American Industrial Hygiene Association. "The awful thing about it is a lot of these companies are going to be out of business, and the owners sitting in the Grand Cayman Islands counting their money. Who's going to pay for the health care for these guys?"

Even when water is used, fiber levels inside containment can exceed the levels experienced by shipyard workers in the 1940s, who wore no respiratory protection, said Morton Corn, professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University and a former administrator of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. More than 100,000 shipyard workers, pipe insulators and others have died from industrial exposure.

"I can't imagine, with what we know today, anyone doing dry removal," said Corn. "You're just being reckless with people's lives. I'd tell these guys: `You're in jeopardy within a year.' These are high levels. If these men work at this for several years, the probability of disease is very high. Very high."

Vink said his insurance company rejects nearly half of companies that seek coverage because their safety and health programs do not meet the insurer's standards.

"I personally believe it's very dangerous for these workers, especially those who smoke," said Vink.

A 1992 White Lung survey of workers undergoing refresher training illustrates how widespread violations are. The workers were asked about conditions on their most recent job. The findings:

-Twenty percent reported removing asbestos dry.

-Half reported no personal air monitoring was performed inside containment. OSHA requires such testing - obtained using sampling pumps worn by workers - to ensure adequate respiratory protection for the level of asbestos in the air.

-More than half reported seeing asbestos dust inside their respirator masks, an indication they were inhaling fibers.

Workers who suffer asbestos-related illnesses may have a difficult time finding health-care coverage.

Asbestos-related diseases can take 20 years or more to develop. Many laborers will work for eight to 10 companies a year, as they move from project to project, says former worker Humberto Yeppes.

The workers' situation is further complicated by some contractors' practice of hiring workers through subcontractors known as labor brokers.

The brokers, who hold no asbestos licenses, frequently have little regard for safety rules, workers say.

In circulars sent to contractors, Eighteen Clean Co. Inc., of Flushing, offered Polish workers at $17 per hour, Koreans at $18.

Another, Jackson Heights Abatement Associates Inc., promises: "Our Korean workers are used to working at least more than 60 hours a week regardless of adverse conditions and environments." Neither Eighteen Clean nor Jackson Heights could be reached for comment.

Other brokers promise contractors that their workers will supply their own respirators - a violation of federal regulations because of the risk of contaminating workers' homes.

Workers say they sometimes use a vacuum cleaner to clean clogged filters - a practice that can destroy the filter's protection - when contractors refuse to supply replacements. The filters, which cost $7 each, are supposed to be discarded.

Workers and others report widespread violation of OSHA regulations requiring contractors to take personal air samples of a quarter of their workers daily.

Workers are supposed to wear a battery-powered pump that sucks air through a sampling cassette - a small cylinder fitted with a paper filter to catch asbestos. When work is done for the day, a lab technician puts the filter under a microscope to count fibers.

Some contractors send the lab cassettes that were not worn, workers say. Yeppes, from West New York, N.J., said the cassettes sometimes are wiped on a carpet outside the containment area so they pick up some, presumably harmless, dust.

Former worker Ariel Montoya, of Newark, N.J., says falsified air-monitoring tests are standard procedure wherever he has worked, from Pennsylvania to Connecticut.

Montoya said a supervisor once told him he paid off lab analysts: "`You put in a couple of hundred dollars,"' he recalled the supervisor as saying, "`and the next day you get the results clean."'

Dan Morocco, co-owner of Contamination Control Engineering, a Trenton air-monitoring firm, said a contractor attempted to bribe him to falsify tests on a 1991 removal on the Jersey Shore.

When Morocco refused, he said, the contractor responded: "I have two or three labs who will give it to me."

Morocco said he reported the incident to OSHA but does not know if the agency investigated. OSHA says it has no record of the incident. The contractor is still licensed.

"Most of the tests are rigged, because OSHA can't put people out there in the field," said Dennis Bowes, a former inspector for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs.

Efraim Zoldan, director of OSHA's Hasbrouck Heights, N.J., office, acknowledged that OSHA does not have enough staff to inspect asbestos jobs routinely. "If we did maybe 10 (asbestos) inspections in the last year, that would be a lot," he said.

Workers say contractors endanger them and their families when they don't provide sufficient decontamination facilities. OSHA regulations require one decontamination shower for every eight workers.

Montoya said he has been on projects where there were only two showers for 45 workers. At lunchtime, workers get little more than 30 minutes to undress, shower, dress in clean clothes, leave containment, eat and dress again.

"The hygienic issue is no longer an issue. You just rush through there the best way you can - rip off your suit inside, don't even take care properly of your respirator, trying to wash it down and ... store it as you're supposed to," says Montoya, who worked for 40 companies in four years before starting his own removal company in 1994.

If workers have no place to shower and change, they can end up taking asbestos-contaminated clothes home. That puts their families at risk: Researchers have documented asbestos related deaths among those who laundered the clothes of shipyard workers.

"Everybody worries about it," said worker Jairo Duque, who worked for about 15 abatement companies before moving to Florida. "All of us."

Another commonly ignored safety regulation, workers say, is the requirement to shut off electricity in work areas. Electrocution is a risk when water is used to minimize asbestos dust. To prevent shocks, electricity is supposed to be provided by special lines protected by ground-fault interrupters.

Worker Marcelino Analuisa said he nearly died when he touched a live electrical wire on a 1993 asbestos job.

Analuisa suffered burns, cuts and a concussion when he fell from a 10-foot scaffold after touching a live lighting fixture; doctors had to restart his heart. He was released from the hospital after two days but was hospitalized for another two days when he lost consciousness a week later.

Unable to find asbestos-removal work since, Analuisa has been living on workers' compensation and his wife's earnings.

"I still have strong headaches every day," he said in an interview through an interpreter. "Always. Always."

Workers say contractors can ignore safety rules because government regulators rarely make surprise visits or enter containment areas to do a thorough inspection.

Foreman Maurice Longworth of North Jersey says he can recall only two inspections in all the jobs he has worked on in New Jersey and New York since 1989.

"If these people were enforcing the law, a lot of these companies would not be able to be bidding for jobs, where they're doing a lot" of corner-cutting, Longworth said.

Workers put some of the blame for their working conditions on the Laborers International Union of North America, which provides workers for much of the nation's asbestos-abatement work. They say some union officials collude with the contractors by ignoring unsafe working conditions and allowing nonunion workers to be hired and under-scale wages to be paid. Calls to the union's national headquarters in Washington were not returned.

Contractors hired for removals at public jobs are required to pay "prevailing wage" rates equivalent to union scale.

Workers say some contractors will pay the prevailing wage to a handful of workers so their payroll records pass labor department reviews. But the contractors then use lower-paid workers hired through labor brokers - who don't show up on their books - to cut their costs, workers say.

"That happens all the time," acknowledged Eugene Glembocki, an inspector in the New Jersey Labor Department's office of wage and hour compliance. "That's why I have a job."

Yeppes said he unwittingly delivered bribes on several occasions to a no-show shop steward for Mason Tenders Local 104, a Laborers' affiliate in Manhattan that federal prosecutors say has been controlled for years by the Genovese crime family.

Laborers Local 1030, in Elizabeth, N.J., which has jurisdiction in North and Central Jersey, was founded by John Riggi, whom federal prosecutors have identified as the "caretaker" for the DeCavalcante crime family. The local's top two officials, James Castaldo and James Gallo, were convicted in 1993 for taking $70,000 in bribes to allow nonunion workers at an asbestos removal at the Maxwell House coffee plant in Hoboken.

Federal prosecutors also have alleged links between organized crime and Laborers Local 332 in Philadelphia.

In 1990, contractor Ralph Costobile pleaded guilty to making weekly payments to the Scarfo organized-crime family during an asbestos removal at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel in 1984 and 1985.

While Costobile agreed to hire a handful of laborers at union scale, the union allowed his company to pay more than 30 workers lower wages without any benefits, investigators said. Frequently, the men were forced to work without adequate equipment or ventilation, investigators said.

Authorities said Costobile and Scarfo associates also bribed and threatened Edward Walton, who had announced plans to challenge Local 332 business manager Samuel Staten Sr. for reelection.

Walton was told that "if he did not take the money and drop out of the race, he would be killed," one investigative report recounted.

Walton, who dropped out, had reason to take the threat seriously, prosecutors said. In 1982, Local 332 dissident Bienvenido Medina was beaten to death in his Hunting Park home less than a week after he announced his intention to run for union office. The slaying has never been solved.

In October 1984, according to federal officials, two Local 332 members who had complained about nonunion laborers at the Ben Franklin site were beaten in separate incidents.

Staten, who was reelected in 1985 and in three subsequent elections, denied any wrongdoing in the Ben Franklin case and was never charged.

In an interview, Staten acknowledged meeting with Costobile about the Ben Franklin project but said he rejected the contractor's request to allow nonunion workers.

"He never offered us anything," Staten said. "I would have taken it as an insult."

Staten said he knew nothing about any payoffs to his rival in the 1985 election. "As far as I knew," he said, "he was running. All of the sudden, he just backed out. As far as paying him money not to run, they just threw away money if they did."

The Laborers International Union of North America, which has 700,000 members in the United States and Canada, was one of four unions identified in 1986 by the President's Commission on Organized Crime as having "clear ties" to the Mafia.

Following a two-year investigation, the U.S. Justice Department announced in February that it would appoint a trustee to take over operation of the union unless it rids itself of organized-crime influences and corruption within three years.

The government's investigation into the Laborers was no secret. Some asbestos workers from North Jersey decided not to wait for the outcome of the probe.

With assistance from the White Lung Association of New Jersey, they formed the Newark-based Hazardous Materials and Lead Abatement Workers Union in 1993. Thus far, the fledgling union has been able to gain contracts with only a handful of companies.

"The progress is very slow," said Myles O'Malley, the union's first president. "We hang in there, but it is a very painful process."

Workers rarely complain because they fear losing their jobs.

"You have to bring bread and butter to your family," said Montoya. "If you say I won't do it that way, you just get kicked out of the job."

"Economic coercion is such a powerful force that it tends to undermine everything we do," complains O'Malley. "Over a period of time, any beneficial aspect of the training gets undermined, primarily through the process of rationalization: `I will do it for another day. I will do it for another week."'

Corn, of Johns Hopkins, said many workers endanger themselves by taking their respirators off.

"To go all day and exert yourself against the resistance of that respirator - some of the men just get fed up," he said. "(They say), `I'll take it off for 10 minutes and then put it back on.' That's a bad practice."

Worker Jairo Duque learned in his training that asbestos related diseases have a long latency period.

"I have been working in asbestos six years now. I don't know what's going to happen in the next nine or 10 years. Is something going to appear or what?"

The Colombian-born Yeppes, 46, chokes with emotion when he talks about the dangers of the work.

He says he has nightmares about workers he has supervised in his 13 years in the industry.

"I know we used about 5,000 workers in asbestos," he said. "And something's telling me many of these guys will die in the future."

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