One of the state's largest construction companies has been fined $140,330 by the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health Office for willfully exposing workers to dangerous levels of lead on a bridge repair project in Baltimore County.
Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. was cited by MOSH for 20 violations of regulations dealing with health in the workplace while repairing the Paper Mill Road bridge over the city's Loch Raven Reservoir.
At least a half-dozen employees working on the bridge last October were exposed to dangerous levels of lead, and three were seriously poisoned, said Marvin Shiflett, business manager for Iron Workers Local 16 (AFL-CIO). He said the union's complaint prompted MOSH to investigate.
The fines, among the largest ever levied by MOSH, may be contested by Whiting-Turner. Willard Hackerman, the firm's president, said through his secretary today that he had just received the complaints and would have nothing to say about them at this time.
Nor would MOSH officials discuss the charges. Milton H.F. Saul, the assistant MOSH commissioner who signed the citations, said he did not want to "try the case in the press."
The citations accuse Whiting-Turner of 18 willful violations, one serious and one "other than serious" infraction. MOSH charged, among other things, that the firm did not monitor the bridge workers for overexposure to lead and did not provide them with proper respirators, protective clothing, wash facilities and training in the hazards of lead and required safety procedures.
Whiting-Turner workers were burning and welding iron grates and curb guards on the structure. The structures were coated with paint containing 23 percent lead, according to the MOSH citations. The city's contract with Whiting-Turner to repair the bridge warned of the possible presence of lead-based paint.
The firm also was charged with failing to pay and to provide lead-free work, as required, to an employee who had to be removed from the bridge project because he had absorbed too much lead.
Shakib "Skip" Baroody, a welder from Essex, said he and others started work on the bridge without any respirators to prevent them from inhaling lead-laden air. They later were issued breathing masks, but they were the wrong type for filtering out lead.
Air samples taken at the time found that workers at the bridge were exposed to airborne concentrations of lead that ranged from 16 to 57 times the state safety limit of 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, according to the citations.
Baroody said he was removed from the bridge project a few days after it started when a blood test revealed he had received a dangerous dose of lead. He had 60 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, a level at which adults show symptoms of poisoning and risk long-term damage to their kidneys and other parts of the body.
"I was irritable. . . . I felt terrible. I felt dead on my feet," Baroody recalled yesterday.
He was put to work a few days later burning metal at the Pulaski Highway incinerator, which is owned by Hackerman, where he said he continued to be exposed to airborne lead.
Baroody said he was denied pay for one day he spent at home awaiting reassignment, and for two other days when he went to his doctor.
Whiting-Turner has been cited before for over-exposing its workers to lead and for related job safety infractions. The firm paid $1,130 in fines in 1987 for 12 serious violations while working on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and was fined another $610 last year for a serious violation on a city construction project.
Whiting-Turner is the second Maryland firm hit with steep fines recently for allegedly over-exposing workers to lead. MOSH levied $119,295 against Maxwell Recycling Inc. of Hagerstown for 30 violations, 15 of them willful.
The Whiting-Turner case is significant because most work-related lead-poisoning cases in Maryland occur in the construction industry, noted Dr. James Keogh, an occupational health specialist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
About 56 percent of the 179 adult lead-poisoning cases reported in the first six months of last year were construction workers, according to statistics compiled by the Maryland Department of the Environment.
Maryland is the only state that now regulates worker exposure to lead in the construction industry. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is expected to propose a federal lead standard for the industry by the end of the year.
And yet construction remains the single biggest source of lead poisoning in Maryland, Keogh noted, despite the state's status as a leader in seeking to limit lead exposures in the industry.
"Only in Maryland are there really serious efforts under way to get this problem under control," he said, "and even here they're not entirely successful."