Michigan’s workplace safety agency plans to step up unannounced inspections of demolition sites around the state to ensure workers are protected against exposure to asbestos and other hazards.
The Michigan Occupational Health and Safety Administration acknowledged that the one-year initiative was prompted in part by a Free Press investigation, which found that while blight removal in Michigan is at historic highs and record numbers of contractors are getting into the business, the agency rarely gets tough with employers who exposed their workers to asbestos, a known carcinogen.
The Free Press’ two-day report, published in May, found multiple cases where workers potentially inhaled dangerous levels of asbestos because they were not given proper gear, including respirators. Some workers weren’t even told that they were handling asbestos.
MIOSHA said the initiative, launching this month, will involve unannounced inspections of 20 or more demolition sites. MIOSHA has assigned six inspectors to the effort, up from four previously doing asbestos abatement inspections. It is the first time MIOSHA has emphasized inspections of blight removal sites.
The agency said the inspections will target blight removal efforts receiving federal funding. Most of that money has gone to the City of Detroit, which is overseeing the largest demolition program in the country.
“As Michigan continues to eliminate blight and revitalize its neighborhoods, it’s especially important that the men and women working on these projects are protected from potential health hazards,” MIOSHA’s acting director, Bart Pickelman, said in a statement.
“Beginning this month, MIOSHA will be inspecting more job sites to ensure employees involved in blight cleanup are properly trained, protected and equipped to work with hazardous materials in a safe manner.”
The agency said blight removal hazards include lead, asbestos, cadmium, silica and heavy metals that require special handling. During each inspection, MIOSHA said it would assist employers in identifying any hazardous materials.
Asbestos must be removed before demolition by licensed contractors, who are required to give the state 10 days’ notice before beginning abatement. Workers removing asbestos should be trained and equipped with disposable coveralls, respirators and safety glasses. Asbestos must be disposed of in airtight containers.
The Environmental Protection Agency declared asbestos a hazardous pollutant in 1971. There is no known safe level of exposure to asbestos, which can cause lung disease, cancer and mesothelioma. Symptoms may not become apparent for decades.
The Free Press’ yearlong investigation found dozens of cases of unlicensed contractors and untrained workers removing asbestos improperly. It also found contractors around the country who preyed on vulnerable people to remove asbestos from aging buildings: immigrants, ex-cons, day laborers, homeless people and teenagers. In Bay City, a contractor converting a church to a charter school recruited workers from the homeless shelter next door.
The Free Press also revealed that MIOSHA drastically reduced penalties when it found contractors removing asbestos improperly. The agency said it bargains down penalties to encourage companies to fix hazardous conditions quickly. But the Free Press found many instances in which contractors didn’t remedy the violations or pay the penalties.
“There’s so much cheating going on out there it’s ridiculous,” said Dan Somenauer, business manager for Abatement Workers Local 207 based in Taylor. The local covers 20 states and 1,200 workers who do abatement work.
Somenauer said policing asbestos abatement is a challenge for workplace safety inspectors because they need to find a project that is under way.
While contractors are supposed to give the state notice before starting abatement, the Free Press found that some ignore the requirement. Others may list dozens of residential properties at once, but don’t necessarily do all the work at the same time. Somenauer said the trick for inspectors will be figuring out when each demolition is taking place.
“It’s good to see that they are stepping up their enforcement,” Somenauer said. “It’s such a hard area to police.”
Tanya Baker, a spokeswoman for MIOSHA, said the agency will identify specific properties for inspection based on the 10-day notifications and by working with land banks around the state that are involved in blight removal.
Detroit says it is overseeing the country’s largest blight removal program. Since Mayor Mike Duggan took office in January 2014, the city has demolished more than 10,500 buildings in neighborhoods across the city, most of them homes. Much of the funding has come from the federal government’s Hardest Hit Fund. To date, announced funds for the effort total $250 million.
“Our first consideration on any demolition project is safety,” said Brian Farkas, director of special projects for the Detroit Building Authority, which is managing the city’s demolition program in cooperation with the Detroit Land Bank Authority. “We support any efforts that help to keep our demolition workers and Detroiters safe during and after the demolition process.”