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Under new law, Maryland asbestos contractors face greater penalties for violations


Maryland legislators have passed a tough new law aimed at punishing asbestos contractors who fail to protect their employees from exposure to the carcinogen.


Effective October 1, the fine for contractors who fail to follow federal safety regulations for asbestos removal will increase from $5,000 to $25,000. The penalties go to an Asbestos Worker Protection Fund to beef up enforcement of the new law, which also raises the standards for training and certifying asbestos workers.


The new law was given a boost from an undercover investigation by the Laborers’ Mid-Atlantic Regional Organizing Coalition. In a report released in November, the union said many asbestos contractors hire unlicensed and untrained workers, putting themselves and the public at risk of exposure. Workers told investigators they were routinely cheated on their paychecks, including being docked for the cost of safety equipment.


In March, as the proposed new law was being debated by legislators, the nonprofit Public Justice Center filed a complaint with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration that accused one Maryland company of charging asbestos workers for medical exams, training and protective equipment, all of which must be provided by the employer under federal law.


Asbestos was used to make building materials and insulation from the 1920s to the 1970s, when it became one of the first hazardous air pollutants regulated by Clean Air Act. Workers in the construction and building maintenance industries are especially at risk of asbestos-related disease, which kills about 10,000 people in the United States each year. About 3,000 cases of mesothelioma, a rare invariably fatal disease that is difficult to treat, are diagnosed in the U.S. annually, a figure that is expected to hold steady or possibly rise until about 2017.


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.


Along with several asbestos workers, Scott Schneider, director of occupational safety for the Laborers' Health and Safety Fund of North America, testified in support of the new law the Maryland Legislature.


“While it has been years since asbestos was used in construction, many older buildings still contain it. Asbestos continues to be a potential threat to anyone who has a job in demolition or remodeling,” Schneider says. “My hope is that other states will follow Maryland’s lead and pass their own asbestos worker protection laws.”