The Washington Department of Corrections (WDOC) was fined $141,000 after an inspection found code violations that exposed prisoners working in an asbestos abatement program to elevated risks of cancer and lung disease.
Since 1990, the WDOC had trained and certified prisoners in asbestos removal. Those prisoners were then paid $4.00 an hour for performing asbestos abatement.
In 2013, seven Cedar Creek Corrections Center (CCCC) prisoners worked in two nine-hour shifts to remove 4,000 feet of old vinyl floor tiles and adhesive in the dining area of the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW).
On June 8, 2013, the Washington Department of Labor & Industries (DLI) inspected the WCCW abatement project and found negligent work practices that violated the Washington State Industrial Safety and Health Act (WISHA). As a result, prisoner workers may have inhaled asbestos dust, which can cause lung disease or cancer, according to DLI.
Specifically, the workers failed to soak the dry material in water to keep asbestos dust out of the air. And although prisoners were issued masks, gloves and other protective equipment, inspectors found they did not wear that gear at all times and their supervisors failed to take corrective measures.
On December 13, 2013, DLI issued prison officials a citation, finding seven separate code violations and imposing a $141,000 fine. The WDOC quickly terminated the program on December 31, 2013, but denied that workers had been exposed or that the closure was due to the DLI investigation.
“We had already been planning to shut the program down because of the risk” of asbestos exposure, WDOC spokeswoman Norah West stated at the time.
On February 28, 2014, the WDOC and DLI entered into a settlement agreement under which the fine was reduced to $70,500, according to the Tacoma News Tribune. In exchange for the reduced fine, prison officials agreed to provide asbestos awareness training to approximately 1,000 employees and purchase five PortaCount respirator fit testers. Still, the WDOC did not admit that its conduct was illegal or in violation of WISHA regulations.
In July 2008, the McNeil Island Prison in Washington had been fined $28,400 by the DLI for similar hazardous asbestos removal practices. [See: PLN, June 2009, p.12].
At least one other state prison system currently operates an asbestos abatement program that employs prisoners. Utah Correctional Industries (UCI) has been operating its own asbestos removal service since 1987. UCI estimates the state saves 20-50% on direct costs by using trained prisoners to perform the removal work at government buildings, including schools. UCI also claims that prisoners who participate in the program have a reduced risk of recidivism – though they don’t mention whether they have an increased risk of cancer or asbestosis.
Sources: News Tribune, www.uci.utah.gov
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