Health complaint filed against asbestos removal company

Public Justice Center alleges WMS Solutions endangering employees

March 16, 2012|By Yvonne Wenger, The Baltimore Sun

An advocacy group filed a complaint Friday with the federal government alleging that a Baltimore-based company put hundreds of employees at risk by failing to protect them against asbestos.

Alexandra Rosenblatt and Jonathan F. Harris, staff lawyers with the Public Justice Center, said WMS Solutions LLC required its employees, who typically earn from $11 to $14 an hour, to pay for medical exams, training and protective equipment such as gloves, goggles and respirators. If workers didn't pay upfront, the costs were deducted from their paychecks, according to the complaint.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires an employer to provide those protections, Rosenblatt and Harris said. The Public Justice Center wants the agency to investigate and reimburse the workers, who had to pay hundreds of dollars apiece each year, according to the complaint.

An OSHA spokeswoman declined to comment on the complaint.

Messages left at WMS Solutions seeking comment were not immediately returned. An executive assistant said late Friday that the company's owner was out of the country.

The asbestos issue is also being addressed in the General Assembly. Bills pending in the state House and Senate — supported by the Public Justice Center — would add protections for workers who handle the material, which is linked to causing cancer. The proposed legislation would also increase the penalties for companies that violate environmental laws.

Rosenblatt said WMS is a staffing company that works with contractors and subcontractors in Maryland, Washington, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

The company employs about 200 to 300 workers, although the number fluctuates with the seasons, Harris said. More than a dozen current and former employees have signed on to the complaint on behalf of all current and former workers. Rosenblatt said turnover at the company is high and that the number of people affected could reach into the thousands.

Gordon J. Raymond of Laurel is one of the workers involved in the complaint. Raymond, who has an outstanding workers' compensation claim against WMS, worked for the company for about two years, and said he signed on to the complaint to push for change.

"If nobody takes a closer look at this to make sure that safety precautions are being met, things are not going to get better," Raymond said.

About 10 contractors and subcontractors are named in the complaint. Calls to several of them were not returned.

Among other matters, the complaint alleges that at two work sites, where subcontractors are using WMS employees, some workers are being forced to wash respirator filters and reuse them while others are given new filters as often as twice a week.

The complaint also accuses WMS and the subcontractors of not establishing proper decontamination areas with shower facilities and, on some occasions, misleading government inspectors by providing showers that were not connected to a water source.

Ernesto Torres of Baltimore said in an interview that he worked for WMS for six years before being fired in July. Torres lost his job when he complained to OSHA about working conditions, the Public Justice Center's filing states.

"I am trying to bring this to the light where everybody can see it, so we can stop them, one way or another, from violating people's rights," Torres said.

The bills before the House and Senate are aimed at adding additional protections for workers who remove asbestos. Asbestos is substance used to insulate pipes, floor tiles and other materials. Contact with asbestos can cause cancer and other diseases.

The legislation, which the Senate could vote on as early as next week, would increase the maximum penalty for violating environmental regulations to $25,000 and establish an Asbestos Worker Protection Fund for the state Department of the Environment to enforce the laws. The bills also would set a minimum penalty of $2,000 for violations.

Del. Tom Hucker, a Montgomery County Democrat who co-sponsored the proposed legislation, said the current fines, which are capped at $5,000, are an insufficient deterrent. The Department of the Environment does not have the resources it needs to enforce the laws, Hucker said.

Hucker said lawmakers need to pass the legislation to even the competition among asbestos abatement companies. Those that follow the rules consistently lose business to "bottom-feeding" companies that offer lower rates by cutting corners, he said.

Sen. Victor Ramirez, a Prince George's County Democrat who also co-sponsored the proposed legislation, said 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."

ywenger@baltsun.com

twitter.com/yvonnewenger

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