Firm fined for unpaid workers recovering from lead poisoning The wages are to be paid in addition to any civil penalties or court fines.

June 08, 1991|By Michael K. Burns EHB

A Baltimore demolition firm whose employees were poisoned by lead and removed by a doctor from the job has been fined by the state for failing to pay their wages during medical recovery, which is required by law.

The Maryland Occupational Safety and Health office assessed $24,160 in fines against Berg Contracting Ltd., including one "willful" violation for knowingly refusing to pay the workers, who the agency said were exposed to high lead levels for more than five months.

"Under Maryland law, there is a penalty for intoxicating employees with lead and that penalty is to pay the worker's wages while he is being treated and recovering," said Craig Lowry, MOSH compliance chief. The wages, which may be paid up to 18 months, are in addition to any civil penalties or court fines, he noted.

"Lead poisoning is serious and requires employer attention to preventing it with engineering controls and training," he said.

Adam Berg, vice president of Berg, said the firm is contesting the citations. The affected workers were paid, he said, and were provided protective equipment, which they chose not to wear.

"We have not had any dealings with lead paint as a contractor. . . . We try to avoid those jobs," he explained.

On Jan. 14, MOSH posted an "imminent danger" notice at the work site, the former National Brewing Co. brewery at 3601 N. Dillon St., where workers were using cutting torches to dismantle fermentation tanks coated with lead-base paint.

The notice requires the company to inform workers of the danger and to immediately correct the condition.

In January, MOSH found three employees exposed to airborne lead levels that were as much as 30 times the allowable limit of 50 micrograms of lead per cubic meter of air.

Two workers, Leroy and Tracy Harpster, were sent to the hospital for blood-lead tests and examination. Dr. Brian Forrester of Francis Scott Key Medical Center found they had lead poisoning and should be removed from the work they were performing.

The Harpsters have not returned to their jobs.

Leroy Harpster had a blood-lead level of 106 micrograms per deciliter of blood when tested at Key; levels of 40 are abnormal and can affect a person's health.

"I asked the foreman, and he said there was no lead in the paint," Mr. Harpster said. "But me and my brother were still feeling sick."

After working there seven months, as the symptoms of nausea, dizziness, headaches and joint pain worsened, the two men called MOSH in January.

The agency inspected and charged Berg with 19 "serious" violations of lead protection and other worker safety laws, in addition to the "willful" citation and eight other violations.

The employer failed to determine potential lead exposures, to take lead samples in work areas, or to provide workers with required respirators, protective clothing or wash-up facilities, MOSH charged.

In addition, the company did not train employees in preventing lead poisoning, provide medical monitoring of exposed workers or make required inspections, the agency said.

Despite repeated inquiries, the firm failed to produce a required log of worker injuries, the agency charged.

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