Judge Upholds $1.1 Million Asbestos Fine

An administrative judge has upheld 29 alleged willful citations and $1,136,900 in OSHA penalties against a Houston employer who used untrained workers to unknowingly remove asbestos.

A case involving the use of untrained workers to remove potentially dangerous asbestos has been upheld by an administrative judge. That means Eric K. Ho of Ho Ho Ho Express Inc. and Houston Fruitland Inc. face 29 alleged willful safety and health violations and $1,136,900 in penalties from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

An explosion and fire March 11, 1998, at a Houston building burned three workers and prompted an OSHA investigation that revealed a clandestine asbestos removal project, according to the agency. Ho is accused of using untrained workers, all of whom do not speak English and were undocumented, to remove asbestos from the building he owned.

The decision Aug. 23 by Administrative Law Judge James H. Barkley shows that "flagrant violations of the law will not be tolerated, and offenders will be severely sanctioned," said Ray Skinner, OSHA Houston South area director, in announcing the decision Sept. 9.

"We must commend the courage of these Mexican nationals who came forward to tell their stories," he said. "That they were exploited and subjected to potentially grievous injury should not be forgotten."

The workers were never told they were removing asbestos or about hazards associated with the material, Skinner said. In addition, they were not provided with proper respiratory protection and performed work in street clothes they wore home. The employer, in an effort to conduct the asbestos removal in secret, had the employers work at night inside a locked, fenced area.

OSHA contends that Ho was aware the buildings contained asbestos when he purchased the facility, but made no serious attempts to protect his employees from the known cancer-causing substance. Ho and his firms were in produce, wholesale trade and transportation.

The explosion and fire occurred after Ho had employees open a utility line to see if it contained water that could be used to wash away asbestos residue. As the cap was opened, natural gas leaked at high pressure. Workers were unable to recap the line, and when an employee tried to move a vehicle obstructing the recapping effort, the gas ignited.

Of the 29 alleged willful violations, 28 were for construction regulations that require employers to protect workers from asbestos hazards. The other violation was for improper opening of the gas line. OSHA also issues 12 alleged serious violations and one alleged other-than-serious citation.

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