U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration proceedings against an Illinois construction company fined for allegedly importing Mexican workers to remove asbestos are on hold as federal officials look into possible criminal activity by the company.
OSHA last year fined Joseph Kehrer and Albers-based Kehrer Brothers Construction $1.8 million for having the workers remove asbestos from a former school in Okawville without safety gear. Breathing asbestos fibers can increase the risk of cancer. The company is contesting the allegations.
The Belleville News-Democrat reported that Department of Labor spokeswoman Rhonda Burke said federal prosecutors are conducting an investigation “into possibly pursuing criminal charges against the employer.”
Kehrer’s attorney, Clyde Kuehn, confirmed that federal prosecutors, along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, are conducting an investigation. He said such probes aren’t uncommon in such cases.
“The reason these citations are being contested is that there are some very significant disagreements on the facts of this case,” Kuehn said. “OSHA’s position on the facts is much different from Mr. Kehrer’s position. We’re trying to work toward having an opportunity to lay that out.”
OSHA alleges many of the workers used by Kehrer came to the U.S. to work for the company under a special visa program that allows companies to hire foreign workers temporarily.
“This case stands out because of the outrageous behavior of Joseph Kehrer,” Assistant Secretary of Labor David Michaels said when the fine was announced in August 2015, adding the workers were threatened with firing if they spoke to investigators.
“They spoke no English. He drove them to jobs,” he said. “He set up a housing camp for them. They were at his mercy.”
Michaels said Kehrer exposed at least eight workers to asbestos in violation of federal health standards, and then threatened to fire them if they spoke to safety investigators.
Investigators said the workers removed floor tiles, insulation and other materials from the old school, unaware that they were exposed to asbestos fibers.
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