With scientists agreeing on the deadly role of asbestos inhalation in all its forms, why would an employer continue to expose employees to this potential hazard? There are no good reasons. One of the first actions upon creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) in 1970, was a set of standards for employee protection from asbestos exposure. These standards – rules – have changed through the years as more knowledge was acquired on the “safe” exposure levels to this mineral. Yet, hundreds, if not thousands, of employers willfully choose to ignore the OSHA rules – even after citations. Paying the penalties to OSHA can just be the cost of doing business. Hopefully the new, significantly increased, penalty costs will deter this thinking, but time will tell.
A Recent Example
In July of 2016, OSHA citations were given to the U.S. Postal Service for their branch in West Baden Springs, Indiana. These weren’t their first citations. The two citations and their individual items were repeat offenses. Addressing and fixing these problems would not have been expensive or time-consuming, yet employee health was not a priority.
The Repeat Infractions
The first citation covered three situations.
• A maintenance employee was not given asbestos awareness training and was not told of an asbestos hazard in their job – cleaning floors with broken tiles where the mastic contained 15% chrysotile asbestos.
• These tiles had been in this condition for more than two months, exposing employees to inhalation hazards.
• Because the maintenance employee had no training on asbestos awareness, the floor was cleaned using dry dusting, dry sweeping or vacuuming without using HEPA filters.
The second citation contained one situation.
• There were no signs or labels identifying areas containing asbestos.
These asbestos-laden areas included most floors and the exterior windows.
The penalties assessed for all these repeat citations combined was $49,720. Will they pay this amount? They have the right to contest the citations and penalties. Many times the amount is reduced.
This citation was issued on Friday, July 29, 2016. If it had been issued the following Monday, penalties would have been significantly higher due to the new fee structure. Would a higher penalty have made a difference? The answer is unknown, but it may encourage employers to address issues found during inspections immediately and eliminate a portion of repeat citations.
None of the situations above appeared worthy of correcting promptly, yet this exposure to employees could affect them up to 50 years in the future with lung cancer, asbestosis, or mesothelioma, which is a fatal cancer almost exclusively contracted through asbestos exposure.
Be Your Own OSHA Inspector
Any building constructed prior to 1980 is suspect for containing asbestos in the US; that includes residences. Though homeowners are not under OSHA regulations, it is in your interests to ensure any work performed in an older home is first tested by an abatement professional. Many contractors, especially small businesses, will demolish walls and floors without testing.
It is not worth any cost savings to have asbestos fibers spread throughout your home, furniture, clothing, and HVAC systems. Your family, visitors, and future buyers of your home will be safe from deadly asbestos fibers because you cared enough to do the right thing.