Extra hands hired off the street are being sent into mold-infested, storm-damaged basements in public housing to clean with highly toxic chemicals but without proper equipment, gear or training, the Daily News has learned.
The Housing Authority first asked its union partners to help with the cleaning — but union officials refused, citing the lack of training or protective clothing.
So the city hired Belfor, an outside company, to do the work.
The company would not comment, but a top official with the federal agency that oversees worker safety said workers were not properly suited up for the jobs they were performing.
“There were (personal protective equipment) issues and they are addressing (it),” said Richard Mendelson, head of the New York office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Mendelson’s teams have inspected job sites in Queens and Brooklyn. As of Friday, OSHA inspectors had checked 2,215 sites, finding nearly 6,000 employees — one in three — working in hazardous conditions.
“There are trade-offs when hiring day laborers,” he said. “You want to hire local people and not just bring in people from the South. But regardless who you bring in, they have to be properly trained and equipped to do the job.”
The workers feel let down.
Todd Maisel/New York Daily News
Residents of Ocean Bay Houses in Rockaway, Queens, were ordered out of building while cleanup was underway.
Last week, The News watched as about 25 workers were picked from a crowd of 120 men and women at the Ocean Bay Houses in the Rockaways. The “lucky” two dozen were told they’d be paid $28 per hour — but were then given insufficient protective clothing and equipment and only a brief rundown on how to get the cleanup done. Workers said they were then sent into the basements for eight-hour shifts.
OSHA requires that all workers don impervious body suits and waterproof boots when working in wet conditions and respirators with special filters — not just paper masks — when working with strong chemicals in tight spaces.
Andre Dixon, 46, worked three days last week and said he and other workers were not given respirators or a body suit. Instead, he sprayed a chemical disinfectant and wiped it down with a wet rag. He said they were given rubber gloves and plastic safety glasses, but sometimes they ran out of boot protectors. Some of the workers were wearing sneakers.
“We have to move all the slime and the sludge that was stinking, and all we had was (paper) masks. They said it was sufficient. They never trained us on this,” he said.
Dixon said the smell in the basements was bad, and after eight hours of work, he said he’d have to dispose of some of his clothes.
Todd Maisel/New York Daily News
Workers hired to clean NYCHA’s Ocean Bay Houses in Rockaway, Queens, face dangers of mold.
Lakesha Crowell, 38, said the chemical — an anti-microbe disinfectant called Microban — “burns your throat and your eyes” over long periods.
“We have done boiler rooms, computer rooms. We wiped down walls with this stinking chemical, wiping it with a wet rag. We’re cleaning up mold, slimy, stinking water. Everything we pick up with gloves.
“We felt like coal miners down there,” she added.
Stephen Woodward, 47, said he’d been given a paper mask, plastic goggles and a vest.
“You’re supposed to have the one-piece suit, but they ran out,” he said.
The trouble for the Housing Authority began right after the superstorm, with 400 buildings housing 80,000 tenants in Red Hook and Coney Island in Brooklyn, the Rockaways in Queens and lower Manhattan damaged from seawater potentially mixed with sewage and petroleum flowing into dozens of basements.
Days after the storm, NYCHA discussed the cleanup operation with Teamsters Local 237 President Greg Floyd, instructing him to order up some of the 8,000 NYCHA employees he represents to begin scouring basements in the affected buildings.
Floyd said he refused to allow his workers to do this type of potentially hazardous work without proper training and equipment.
“We told them we needed training. We wouldn’t tell (workers) to go in there without equipment and without training,” Floyd said. “You need somebody who knows how to sanitize the area.”
NYCHA spokeswoman Sheila Stainback said, “Belfor is an experienced provider of remediation services and we expect them to ensure proper precedures are followed in all aspects of their work with NYCHA.”
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