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Company accused of making asbestos workers pay for their own protection


As Maryland lawmakers debate adding protections for workers who handle asbestos, a Baltimore company has been accused of putting employees at risk of exposure to the known carcinogen by failing to provide proper training and protective equipment.

 

The Public Justice Center, a nonprofit that offers legal assistance to the poor, has filed a complaint with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration that accuses WMS Solutions LLC of violating federal laws to protect workers from exposure to asbestos, which causes mesothelioma, lung cancer and other respiratory illnesses.

 

The Baltimore Sun reports that the Public Justice Center wants OSHA to investigate claims from workers that WMS Solutions charged them for medical exams, training and protective equipment, all of which must be provided by the employer. The cost of equipment provided by the company was deducted from the workers’ paychecks, according to the complaint.

 

WMS Solutions is a staffing agency that provides workers to contractors and subcontractors in the District of Columbia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Nearly a dozen contractors and subcontractors have also been named in the complaint, which was signed onto by more than a dozen current and former employees. According to the Sun, the number of people affected could reach into the thousands.

 

The complaint alleges that some workers are forced to wash and reuse their respirator filters, which should be replaced regularly. The complaint also accuses WMS and the subcontractors of failing to provide decontamination areas with shower facilities and, on some occasions, misleading government inspectors by providing showers that were not connected to a water source, the Sun reports.

 

One former employee told the newspaper that he was fired after six years at WMS for complaining about working conditions to OSHA.

 

Under OSHA standards, employers must monitor airborne asbestos levels at construction and demolition sites and provide protections and training when there is any risk of exposure. Companies are required to provide medical monitoring when legal exposure limits are exceeded.

 

The OSHA complaint comes as Maryland lawmakers debate two bills that would add protections for workers handling asbestos, which until the 1970s was widely used in the building trades to insulate pipes, floor tiles and other materials.

 

The legislation, filed in both the House and the Senate, would set a minimum penalty of $2,000 for violating environmental regulations and increase the maximum penalty from $5,000 to $25,000. The penalties would be paid into a new Asbestos Worker Protection Fund to beef up enforcement of the proposed new law.

 

Sen. Victor Ramirez, a Prince George's County Democrat and co-sponsor of SB649, told the Sun that some companies are exploiting a vulnerable part of the state's population.

 

"We're talking about multimillion-dollar contracts in a lot of cases, and we have employers who are taking shortcuts to profit more," said Ramirez, who was speaking about the legislation and not referring to the WMS complaint. "People are afraid to come out and say what is wrong. They are afraid to lose their job."