Homeless, Custodians and Other Untrained Workers Being Used To Remove Asbestos In Michigan

Illustration of potential asbestos exposure in a building

A recent investigation into Michigan’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) shows that the agency isn’t enforcing the safety standards set for asbestos removal, putting untrained workers and the community in danger of asbestos exposure. In one instance, a contractor hired workers from a homeless shelter and custodians to remove asbestos without being told about the hazardous substance’s presence, yet MIOSHA has done little to nothing about it.

Although asbestos removal is at a record-high in Michigan, MIOSHA claims it doesn’t have enough inspectors to police all asbestos abatement projects. Rather, its goal is to support proper removal and lower fines for organizations that fix dangerous conditions quickly.

The investigation uncovered situations where asbestos contractors did not fix violations nor did they pay penalties (even when they were reduced). Unlicensed contractors and untrained workers were found to be removing the asbestos improperly.

In one example, workers were hired from a homeless shelter with the promise of quick cash. In another, custodians Theresa Ely and Rob Smith were ordered to re-wax tile floors containing asbestos at Annapolis High School in Dearborn Heights.

Ely and Smith were told to dry sand and save time, instead of using scrubbers and water. According to Smith, the dust was so thick he had to cover his mouth with wet rags. Ely needed to spit out the dust with mouthfuls of Pepsi.

“We inhaled it. We swallowed it. It would get gritty in your teeth,” said Ely. Smith claimed his eyes itched “just like I’d held a cat to my face.”

A few months later, a longtime cook at the school passed due to mesothelioma cancer caused by asbestos exposure. Ely worried her and Smith had exposed their coworkers to the asbestos when they were cleaning.

MIOSHA was called in and cited the district stating in a report that “employees were exposed to asbestos-containing flooring materials” and workers were not provided with protective equipment nor were they given asbestos-awareness training.

The settlement resulted in a drastically reduced fine of $1,800 per building where the asbestos exposure occurred. Ely spoke out and was reprimanded two times by the school for informing other workers of the unsafe asbestos levels.

“We are heartbroken over that. It enrages me. It makes me sick to my stomach, The punishment should fit the crime. The fines should reflect what was done. It’s not enough money to bury one worker,” said Ely.

“It just takes every bit of effort … to continue to go into those schools every single day and do my job,” said Ely. According to Smith, he’ll remember sanding those floors forever.

The reports produced by the school showed the high school to be free of asbestos, but the supposed creator of the report, Don Clayton, said, “Someone forged it. That’s not my format. The whole thing is wrong. There’s no date, no signature. Who did the analysis? It’s all missing. It’s totally messed up.”

State Agencies “Go Easier” on Violators Compared to Federal Agencies

In fact, over a seven-year period, employers were given zero penalties by MIOSHA in two-thirds of asbestos safety cases. For serious violations, not a single company received the $7k maximum penalty. For repeat and willful violations, not one company was fined the $70k maximum penalty.

A former top official in OSHA’s regional office in Chicago, John Newquist, says, “States that choose to oversee worker safety rather than have the federal government do it tend to go easier on employers.”

In comparison, federal OSHA’s asbestos penalties have gotten larger. The agency has given twice as many willful violations and two to three more times repeat violations as MIOSHA.