News Release 98-367
Thursday, September 3, 1998
Contact: Frank Kane (202) 219-8151
OSHA PROPOSES $1.5 MILLION IN FINES FOR
HOUSTON BUILDING OWNER ACCUSED OF USING UNTRAINED
WORKERS TO REMOVE ASBESTOS
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration
(OSHA) today proposed penalties totaling $1,480,500
against Eric K. Ho, Ho Ho Ho Express, Inc., and
Houston Fruitland, Inc., following an explosion and
fire at a Houston, Texas, building undergoing
asbestos removal. Three workers were seriously
burned in the incident.
OSHA's investigation revealed that Ho was using
untrained workers, some of them non-English speaking
and undocumented, to remove asbestos from the
building he owned. The workers were burned by a
gas line explosion and fire.
"This is a shocking example of sweatshop
conditions in construction work," said Secretary
of Labor Alexis M. Herman. "Not only did the
employer expose untrained workers to the hazards
of asbestos, which can result in serious
illness and even death, he had them working
inside a locked, fenced area removing the
asbestos at night, apparently to escape detection
of the unsafe, deplorable conditions."
The March 11, 1998, explosion and fire occurred
when the workers were ordered to perform an
improper tap on what the employer assumed was
a water line. It turned out to be a gas line.
Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational
Safety and Health Charles N. Jeffress added,
"Not only were the workers
untrained to perform this potentially
hazardous asbestos removal work, but
they lacked proper respiratory protection
and the proper protective clothing. They
performed the work in street clothes which
they wore home. Stiff penalties are
warranted in this case."
OSHA cited Ho and his firms for 28 alleged
willful violations of the construction regulations
which require employers to protect workers from
asbestos hazards and one alleged willful
violation that addressed the improper opening
of the gas line.
The agency also issued citations for
12 alleged serious violations and one
alleged other-than-serious violation.
Ho and his firms are engaged in the produce,
wholesale trade and transportation businesses;
as well as real estate investments such as
the two buildings where the explosion occurred.
OSHA said that Ho was aware that the buildings
contained asbestos when he purchased the site
but made no serious attempt to protect his
employees from this known carcinogen.
The City of Houston Public Works and Engineering
Division ordered the demolition work shut down
because Ho failed to obtain the required permits.
OSHA said this apparently prompted Ho to
conduct the work at night and on weekends and
to lock the gate to the site to avoid detection.
During the work, Ho ordered the employees to
open a utility line to see if it contained water
that could be used to wash away asbestos residue.
When the cap was opened, natural gas leaked at high
pressure. Workers tried in vain to recap the line.
When an employee attempted to move a vehicle that
was obstructing the recapping effort, the gas
ignited, causing the explosion and fire.
Jeffress said the Ho case is the latest in a
series of cases that illustrate the need for
focusing greater attention on the hazards asbestos
poses for workers.
On July 8 Interstate Brands Corp.(IBC),
manufacturer of bakery snacks such as "Twinkies,"
was cited for numerous
violations of the regulations to protect
workers during asbestos removal at its Schiller
Park, Ill., facility. OSHA proposed penalties
Other recent cases where workers have been
exposed to asbestos fiber hazards include
several Justice Department
prosecutions involving the hiring of untrained
workers, often homeless people or unwary
teenagers, to rip out asbestos; OSHA citations
against seven contractors for violating asbestos
and lead standards during a demolition and salvage
project at the former Greater Pittsburgh Airport;
and OSHA citations against a construction
firm in Delray Beach, Fla., that used untrained
laborers to perform asbestos removal.
Ho has 15 working days to contest the citations
and proposed penalties before the independent
Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.
SUMMARY OF CITATIONS AND PROPOSED PENALTIES
ERIC K.HO, HO HO HO EXPRESS, INC.,
and HOUSTON FRUITLAND, INC.
ALLEGED WILLFUL VIOLATIONS
Twenty-eight willful violations for failing to:
Provide a competent person to supervise Class I asbestos work*;
Provide each employee with adequate respirators and ensure their use;
Perform an initial exposure assessment for asbestos prior to commencement
of Class I asbestos work;
Perform air monitoring;
Inform employees of the presence of asbestos-containing material;
Provide training for each employee performing Class I asbestos work, and
Dispose of asbestos waste in sealed, labeled bags.
One willful violation of Section 5(a)(1) of
the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which
requires the employer to keep the workplace free
from known and recognized hazards that could
cause death or serious physical harm. This
citation was for requiring an employee to open
a pipe with unknown contents.
The proposed penalty for each willful violation
is $49,000 after reducing the $70,000 maximum
penalty for the size and past history of the
Class I asbestos work involves removal of
thermal insulation and surfacing material
with asbestos containing material and presumed
asbestos containing material. The work done by
the employees on the site was Class I asbestos work.
TOTAL PROPOSED PENALTIES FOR ALLEGED WILLFUL VIOLATIONS
(Willful violations are those committed with
an intentional disregard of, or plain indifference
to, the requirements of the Occupational Safety
and Health Act and regulations.)
ALLEGED SERIOUS VIOLATIONS
Twelve serious violations for failing to:
Conduct all Class I asbestos work within a regulated area;
Use engineering and work practice controls during Class I asbestos work; perform dry sweeping and shoveling of dust and debris containing asbestos; ensure that airborne asbestos did not migrate from regulated areas during the work; ventilate regulated area properly; use a prescribed control method for Class I asbestos work;
Institute a respiratory protection program;
Provide protective clothing;
Establish decontamination area for Class I asbestos work;
Identify the quantity of asbestos-containing material prior to the commencement of Class I asbestos work;
Post warning signs during Class I asbestos work;
Institute a medical surveillance program for employees performing Class I asbestos work;
Have a communication system for contacting an ambulance service;
Provide potable water for washing and drinking;
Provide an adequate toilet facility; and
Have a method to inform employees about the hazards of unlabeled pipes.
The proposed penalty for each serious violation
is $4,900 after reducing the $7,000 maximum penalty
for the size and past history of the employer.
TOTAL PROPOSED PENALTIES FOR ALLEGED SERIOUS VIOLATIONS
(A serious violation is defined as one in which
there is a substantial probability that death or
serious physical harm could result, and the employer
knew or should have known of the hazard.)
ALLEGED OTHER-THAN-SERIOUS VIOLATION
Failure to report the March 11, 1998, incident
that resulted in the hospitalization of three
employees. Proposed penalty of $700.(An other-than-serious
violation is a hazardous condition that would probably
not cause death or serious physical harm, but
would have a direct and immediate relationship
to the safety and/or health of employees.)
GRAND TOTAL OF PROPOSED PENALTIES = $1,480,500