CWA Case Studies: Working Around Asbestos-Containing Materials

CWA members employed as telecommunications technicians are often assigned to perform their jobs in work areas (e.g., manholes, vaults, and buildings) in which there are asbestos-containing materials. As demonstrated in the groundbreaking medical surveillance efforts of the Union’s Occupational Safety and Health and Legal Departments’ conducted during the 1990’s, more than 30 per cent of the participating 8,000 CWA-represented telecommunications technicians with at least 30 years of seniority were medically-diagnosed with life-threatening asbestos related disease. These findings truly demonstrated the hazardous nature of telecommunications work.

Fortunately, due to CWA’s successful efforts advocating and working for asbestos removal, mitigation, and prevention activities, the potential for exposure to asbestos-containing products has significantly decreased the likelihood telecommunications technicians will perform work in asbestos-contaminated work areas. The general rule of thumb suggests structures and buildings erected and materials manufactured from 1980 to the present are less likely/unlikely to contain asbestos.

However, lacking removal and/or encapsulation of asbestos-containing materials in workplaces (built prior to 1980) where CWA members/telecommunications technicians are assigned to perform their work, potentially leaves thousands upon thousands of workplaces that contain asbestos materials.

Specific to telecommunications work sites, one area of concern involves decades-old asbestos-containing floor files located within Telecommunications Central Offices. Recently, three specific examples of potential member exposure were brought to the attention of the Union’s Occupational Safety and Health Department. The creativity and strident determination of CWA Local union officers and occupational safety and health activists to ensure the Union’s members are provided safe and healthful working conditions is demonstrated in each of these cases.

The first case, initiated and completed in January, 2012 involved CWA 4603, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, member/AT&T telecommunications technicians’ potential exposure to loose asbestos-containing floor tiles and mastic adhesive. This condition was caused after hot water had leaked from the boiler damaging the floor tiles. Under the direction of George Walls, the Local’s president, Mike Kudlewski, the locals’ workplace safety and health chair, brought the union’s concerns regarding the floor tiles/mastic adhesive and potential asbestos contamination to the attention of AT&T local management. In turn, the company’s Environmental Health and Safety Department investigated this matter finding the central office floor tiles contained asbestos and, subsequently, ordered appropriate removal and remediation efforts be conducted. Following these procedures, a protective floor coating was applied. (This case also involved an investigation and identification of damaged lead-based paint. Industrial hygiene testing by AT&T found dangerous lead levels which led the company to properly remediate the lead issue).

The second case, initiated in December, 2011 and resolved in June, 2012, involved 23 Verizon telecommunications technicians/Local 2201 (Richmond, Virginia), 2222 (Annandale, Virginia), and 2275 (Woodbridge, Virginia) members who were assigned to pull/install telecommunications cable from existing manholes to new manholes as part of a major highway construction project. (The actual work was performed during the July- December, 2011 time-frame). Although Verizon management personnel had full knowledge that deteriorated asbestos-containing products were located within the work area, they failed to provide both this information to the technicians and take the OSHA-required protective/preventive actions necessary to ensure the technicians were not exposed to airborne/friable asbestos.

After learning of this situation, under the direction of CWA Local 2222 President Don Lewis, Jesse Davis, the local’s occupational safety and health chair, began to conduct an investigation regarding the company’s potential violations of the existing CWA/Verizon contract and the OSHA Asbestos Standard as well as member asbestos exposure. First, in concert with his local president, Jesse contacted the Local 2201 and 2275 presidents, the appropriate District 2-13 Staff, as well as the Union’s Occupational Safety and Health Department to discuss the potential for member asbestos exposure, the company’s actions, and suggest specific Union action. Then, after bringing the Union’s concerns to the company’s attention and receiving a response “there was no real hazard to the employees,” Local 2222 filed a grievance against Verizon.

Given the company’s inadequate response, a complaint was filed with the Virginia Occupational Safety and Health Administration alleging the company had violated the OSHA Asbestos Standard and potentially-exposed CWA members/Verizon telecommunications technicians to asbestos-containing materials. After conducting a thorough investigation, in June, 2012, the Virginia Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Verizon for three “Serious” violations of the OSHA Construction Industry Asbestos Standard and fined the company $6,300. (An additional violation was withdrawn after Verizon abated the identified hazard).

In addition, given involved members were working in the asbestos-contaminated areas for a significant period of time, CWA requested Verizon provide them with asbestos medical surveillance exams. The company has agreed to provide these medical exams. Also, Local 2222 indicated it will continue working to ensure Verizon is in compliance with the OSHA Asbestos Standard and provide affected technicians with safe and healthful working conditions.

The third case, initiated in June, 2012, involves CWA Local 3616 members/AT&T Central Office Technicians potential exposure to deteriorated and damaged asbestos-containing floor tile and mastic adhesive. While performing their usual Central Office work, Local 3616 members (including Local President Bill Hunt) noticed the floor tiles were damaged to the degree many of them had been pulverized into fine particles and were loosely scattered on the floor. (Ironically, AT&T management had recently shown technicians a company video highlighting the safety and health dangers associated with asbestos exposure, but had not done anything to correct this problem).

During the June, 2012 CWA District 3 Occupational Safety and Health Conference Call, Bill Hunt raised this issue for discussion. After a brief discussion, David LeGrande, CWA’s Occupational Safety and Health Director, and Bill spoke in depth about the asbestos floor tile issues. Bill indicated AT&T-contracted safety and health personnel had been sweeping up asbestos particles with a regular dust broom into a dust pan, placing the asbestos particles into a zip-lock plastic bag, and throwing and disposing of the asbestos-contained materials into the regular trash. All of these procedures are in direct violation of the OSHA and EPA Asbestos Standards.

David drafted and sent a number of suggested points for action. In turn, the Union’s concern was passed from the contract safety and health personnel to the AT&T Environmental Health and Safety Department. Shortly thereafter, David received an initial e-mail from an extremely well-qualified AT&T safety and health professional/industrial hygienist within the department. In turn, this led to a series of recommendations and an agreement from the company to remove and dispose of the damaged/deteriorated/loose asbestos floor tiles and to clean and treat the floor and other horizontal work surfaces by the end of July, 2012. In addition, AT&T indicated it would ensure the continued involvement of the building asbestos inspector and adhere to his recommendations regarding further asbestos removal and disposal activities.

Each of these three case studies demonstrates the need for CWA occupational safety and health activists to:

  • Communicate with members/technicians regarding telecommunications Central Office working conditions,
  • Conduct periodic walk-around inspections of represented work locations, and
  • Work with CWA leaders, members, and staff and, where possible, employer representatives/safety and health personnel to identify and resolve workplace safety and health issues.

Given the life-threatening issues associated with asbestos, the importance of this work is magnified. CWA leaders and safety and health activists are encouraged to replicate the efforts highlighted in the above local union stories. These efforts should be carried out through the local’s occupational safety and health committee.