Two companies working on the renovation of an old school building in southern Illinois are in deep trouble with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. The building, it seems, contained a significant amount of asbestos, and the companies knew it. They did not, however, share the information with their workers.
OSHA cited one company for 40 violations related to the asbestos. The company had failed on multiple levels to protect its workers from the dangers of inhaling asbestos fibers. Its conduct earned a whopping $1.8 million fine — an exceptionally steep penalty for OSHA.
The agency may have been a little less punitive if the company had not already had multiple violations. The company has a history, though. In fact, these citations also landed the company in OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program, which we will discuss in a future post.
The company also threatened to fire workers if they talked to OSHA investigators, according to the report. Further, the workers were brought to the U.S. under the H-2B visa program to work on the project, and their limited English put them at a distinct disadvantage or, worse, made them the perfect foils for the company’s willful violations. For OSHA, this was one of the most galling aspects of the case.
OSHA may collect the $1.8 million in fines, but the workers will not. However, a worker with an H-2B visa is protected by all of the laws that protect other workers in this country — that includes the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Occupational Health and Safety Act and workers’ compensation laws.
The challenge, of course, is that asbestos-related illnesses can take years to manifest. In Illinois, for example, a worker has 25 years from the date of the last exposure to file a workers’ comp claim. But where will these workers be next year, much less in 20 years?