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Region 6 News Release: USDL-OSHA-99-121-9-9
Thurs., Sept. 9, 1999
Contact: Diana Petterson
PHONE: (214) 767-4776, ext. 222
JUDGE UPHOLDS OSHA CITATIONS FOR HOUSTON BUILDING OWNER ACCUSED OF USING UNTRAINED WORKERS TO REMOVE ASBESTOS
An administrative law judge has upheld citations for willful safety and health violations issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration as well as $1,136, 900 in OSHA penalties against Eric K. Ho; Ho Ho Ho Express, Inc.; and Houston Fruitland, Inc., in a case involving the use of untrained workers to remove potentially dangerous asbestos.
Administrative Law Judge James H. Barkley issued the decision Aug. 23.
An explosion and fire at a Houston, Tex., building on March 11, 1998, in which three workers were burned, prompted an OSHA investigation that revealed a clandestine asbestos removal project. Ho was using untrained workers, all of whom were non-English speaking, uneducated and undocumented immigrants, to remove asbestos from the building he owned.
"The Judge's decision shows that flagrant violations of the law will not be tolerated and offenders will be severely sanctioned. We must commend the courage of these Mexican nationals who come forward to tell their stories," said Ray Skinner, OSHA Houston South area director. "That they were exploited and subjected to potentially grievous injury should not be forgotten."
"The workers, who were never told they were removing asbestos or about the hazards associated with the material, were not provided with proper respiratory protection and performed the work in street clothes they wore home," Skinner said. "The employer had the employees inside a locked and fenced area removing the asbestos at night in order to avoid detection."
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 cancer-causing substance. Ho had obtained a bid from a certified asbestos abatement contractor but chose instead to hire the Mexican nationals.
The City of Houston Public Works and Engineering Division ordered the demolition work shut down when Ho failed to obtain the required permits and that probable violations of the asbestos abatement requirements existed. Instead of closing the project down, this prompted Ho to conduct the asbestos removal work at night and on weekends and to lock the gate to the site to avoid detection, OSHA said.
On March 11, 1998, Ho ordered the employees to open an unmarked 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 an explosion and fire that seriously burned three workers.
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 were engaged in the produce, wholesale trade and transportation businesses; as well as real estate investments such as the two buildings where the explosion occurred.
Ho has 30 working days to appeal the judge's decision to the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.
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