I had dinner with my friend Matt Stein last night. Matt is a fellow safety consultant and a former Federal OSHA compliance officer. We were talking about the history of egregious safety and OSHA violations through the years, and he mentioned the case of Eric Ho, from 1998.
Eric K. Ho was the owner of several companies including Ho Ho Ho Express, Inc., and Houston Fruitland, Inc., in Houston, TX.
Ho’s companies were engaged in the produce, wholesale trade and transportation businesses. He also held several real estate investments including two buildings where a serious explosion and fire occurred in 1998.
When Ho purchased the buildings (a defunct hospital and an attached clinic) in 1997 with the intention of converting them to residential units, he knew that the buildings contained Asbestos. He was aware of the requirements that applied to renovating buildings that contain asbestos, but in an effort to save money, he used untrained, non-English speaking, illegal immigrants to remove the material. They were not told of the presence of Asbestos or its hazards. They were not provided with, and didn’t wear respiratory protection or any other Personal Protective Equipment. They were not provided with drinking water or working toilets, despite the fact that many of the immigrants were living in the building during the work.
On February 2, 1998, the worksite was visited by City of Houston inspectors, who had received complaints about the work being conducted without a permit. The inspector issued a stop work order based on the obvious Asbestos issues. Ho began to negotiate with a licensed abatement contractor to complete the work, but in the meantime, ordered the employees to defy the stop work order by continuing to work under the same conditions as before. But now, Ho required employees to perform the work in a locked/fenced area, and to only work at night to avoid detection by Houston building officials.
On March 11, 1998, an explosion and fire occurred when the workers were ordered to open a utility line to see if it contained water that could be used to wash away asbestos residue. The pipe was actually a natural gas line, and when it was opened, natural gas leaked at high pressure. Workers tried in vain to recap the line. When an employee attempted to move a vehicle that was obstructing the recapping effort, the gas ignited, causing the explosion and fire. Unable to escape due to the locked work area, the three employees were all seriously burned.
The day after the fire, Ho summoned all workers to his office, where they were paid $100 each to sign documents releasing Ho from all claims that might arise as a result of the fire, and to purportedly acknowledge that they performed the work as contractors, not as employees.
“This is a shocking example of sweatshop conditions in construction work,” said Secretary of Labor Alexis M. Herman. “Not only did the employer expose untrained workers to the hazards of asbestos, which can result in serious illness and even death, he had them working inside a locked, fenced area removing the asbestos at night, apparently to escape detection of the unsafe, deplorable conditions.”
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) proposed penalties totaling $1,480,500 against Ho. The citations included 28 alleged willful violations, 12 serious violations and one other-than-serious citations. Ho’s case eventually made it to the Review Commission, where the penalties were significantly reduced. You can read more about his case and the Review Commission’s decision here.
Ho was also convicted of criminal violations of the Clean Air Act, and those convictions were upheld on appeal.