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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 totaling $910,000.

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.
HOUSTON, TEX.

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 employer.

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
$1,421,OOO

(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
$58,800

(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


Archive Notice - OSHA Archive

NOTICE: This is an OSHA Archive Document, and may no longer represent OSHA Policy. It is presented here as historical content, for research and review purposes only.

OSHA News Release - (Archived) Table of Contents

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