Washington State Ends Asbestos Clean Up By Prisoners

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In 2013, a total of 65 Washington State residents died in job-related injuries or illnesses, according to the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries (L&I). Of these deaths, 15 were related to asbestos exposure. The Department, which protects more than 3.2 million workers by ensuring that all Washington State employer’s meet safety and health standards, monitors all employers and facilities–including the Department of Corrections.

Although no Department of Corrections’ employees or inmates have been diagnosed with mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases, L&I believed that they were at risk of exposure thanks to a 23-year-old asbestos abatement program that sent inmate work crews to clean up asbestos at various facilities. One such facility was the Washington Corrections Center for Women-WCCW (Purdy Prison) in Gig Harbor, Washington. The program, which paid prisoners $4 an hour, sent a crew of workers to Purdy to remove 4,000 feet of old vinyl floor tiles and adhesive in the dining area of the prison’s kitchen building. The crew worked through two nine-hour shifts. Many did not adhere to certain safety rules and supervisors neglected to correct them.

In an article by Governing Magazine, Elaine Fischer–a spokesperson for L&I, stated that “[the WCCW] were allowing the workers to be exposed to asbestos.” Seven inmates from Cedar Creek Corrections Center in Littlerock may have inhaled dangerous asbestos dust during the asbestos abatement project at Purdy, says GM. The Department of Corrections, without admitting guilt, paid a fine of more than $70,000 to settle the state investigation into clean up practices. It also agreed to buy more equipment and do more training, which cut the original penalty of $141,000 in half.

The Department of Corrections had workplace violations in the past, according to L&I, including another case involving asbestos. Department of Corrections spokesperson Norah West says the Department had already been planning to shut the program down due to the risks of asbestos poisoning. After the 15th asbestos-removal project for the program for 2013, 18 days after the original fine, and 60 days before signing the settlement, the Department of Corrections shut down the asbestos abatement program.

According to the United States Department of Labor, Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), there is no “safe” level of asbestos exposure for any type of asbestos fiber. OSHA says:

“Asbestos exposures as short in duration as a few days have caused mesothelioma in humans. Every occupational exposure to asbestos can cause injury or disease; every occupational exposure to asbestos contributes to the risk of getting an asbestos related disease. Where there is exposure, employers are required to further protect workers by establishing regulated areas, controlling certain work practices and instituting engineering controls to reduce the airborne levels. The employer is required to ensure exposure is reduced by using administrative controls and provide for the wearing of personal protective equipment. Medical monitoring of workers is also required when legal limits and exposure times are exceeded.”

For more information about federal requirements for asbestos abatement and for the renovation and demolition of buildings that contain asbestos, visit the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Governing Magazine
KXLY Broadcast Group, Spokane—Coeur d’Alene
United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Unites States Department of Labor, Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA)
Washington State Correctional Industries, Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW)
Washington State Department of Labor & Industries (L&I)
Photo by SGT141 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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