Do Penalties for Asbestos Infractions Deter Violators?

A recent probe into asbestos infractions at Massachusetts work sites discovered that perhaps the penalties inflicted on those who ignore asbestos laws simply aren’t enough to keep these violators from doing the same thing over again. Likely, Massachusetts isn’t the only state where this scenario pays out over and over.

Asbestos Infractions - warning signIn an in-depth look at asbestos violations and how they affect workers, WBUR Public Radio in Boston determined that federal agencies like OSHA aren’t doing enough to monitor working conditions that involve asbestos, but that state agencies seem to be doing a slightly better job of protecting unknowing workers from asbestos exposure.

In Massachusetts, in particular, OSHA located only one asbestos-related violation in the state from September 2015 through September 2016.

Yet state agencies, like the Department of Environmental Protection, conducted nearly 1,200 asbestos inspections during its most recent fiscal year, a number that was twice that of the year before. The Department of Labor Standards also claims to have done more inspections during this past year.

Still, these inspections and the fines they sometimes produce seem not to be a deterrent to many contractors and others who are involved in situations that involve the handling or removal of asbestos.

“Some employers budget-in fines as the price of doing business,” said Cora Roelofs, an occupational health researcher who led a 2013 state study on asbestos-related deaths. “They assume there will be fines.”

So, if employers see the fines simply as a cost of doing business, their employees – often unsuspecting immigrants hired to do “the dirty work” – suffer the consequences and pay a much larger price than the $2,500 fine imposed by the Massachusetts Department of Labor Standards for a first violation. (Repeat offenders pay $5,000.)

Often, workers’ concerns are merely dismissed. Such was the case of demolition worker Henry Aguilar, a Guatemalan immigrant who now lives in Rhode Island.

Aguilar, who worked for Skinner Demolition Company, spied a suspicious-looking cracked tile adhered to the underside of a carpet he was removing at a recent jobsite.

Recognizing a problem and suspecting asbestos, he stopped his work and showed the tile to his superior. He was urged not to worry and to just keep working.

Not wanting to risk his job, Aguilar did just that…but he also took a sample of the crumbling tile and sent it to WBUR. The station had it analyzed and determined that it contained levels of asbestos that were hazardous.

Aguilar and his fellow workers should have been wearing respirators while dealing with these tiles. Instead, they only donned paper masks. These flimsy masks were not enough to prevent inhalation of tiny asbestos fibers.

No one knows whether Aguilar and his fellow employees – and others who’ve been placed in similar situations – will eventually develop mesothelioma or some other asbestos-related disease.

It is clear, however, that both federal and state agencies need to have stricter rules and higher fines for those who ignore asbestos laws.

In addition, workers who are harmed by employers’ negligence should not hesitate to forge ahead with legal action against their employers should they develop an asbestos disease.