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
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
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
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.
Workers who suffer asbestos-related illnesses may have a difficult time finding health-care coverage.
-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.
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
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
When Morocco refused, he said, the contractor
responded: "I have two or three labs who will give it to
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
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,"
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
"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
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
"I still have strong headaches every
day," he said in an interview through an interpreter. "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
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
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
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
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."