HEALTH

Illinois company fined $1.8M for exposing Mexican workers to asbestos

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 11:  A sign warns of asbestos danger at a former Royal Mail sorting office on October 11, 2013 in London, England.  (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 11: A sign warns of asbestos danger at a former Royal Mail sorting office on October 11, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)  (2013 Getty Images)

The top federal official for worker safety said Tuesday that an Illinois businessman's "outrageous behavior" of bringing in Mexican workers to remove asbestos without safety gear warrants fines of nearly $1.8 million.

The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration levied the fines Monday. Investigators found Joseph Kehrer, Kehrer Brothers Construction and a Kehrer-affiliated company, D7 Roofing, exposed at least eight workers to asbestos in violation of federal health standards.

"This case stands out because of the outrageous behavior of Joseph Kehrer," said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health David Michaels. Workers were threatened with firing if they spoke to investigators, Michaels said.

"They spoke no English. He drove to them to jobs," Michaels said. "He set up a housing camp for them. They were at his mercy."

A phone message left for Kehrer seeking comment was not immediately returned.

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Kehrer had workers removing asbestos-containing materials during renovation of a former school in Okawville, about 45 miles southeast of St. Louis. Many of the workers came to the United States to work for Kehrer under a special visa program that allows companies to hire foreign workers temporarily, according to OSHA.

Breathing asbestos fibers can increase the risk of cancer.

It's unclear whether the workers will be able to find other work in the United States, Michaels said. "These workers will carry this increased cancer risk for the rest of their lives," he said.

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