Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Toxic Chemical Poisoning: Take Two Alka-Seltzers and Call Me In The Morning

SEIU is using health and safety issues in compaign to organize janitorial employees who work for Unicco Service Co., a contractor at the University of Miami's medical complex.
Chemicals are at the heart of the alleged safety issues, according to the report. One dangerous substance used was called Big K, made by Tampa-based Theochem. According to information provided by Theochem, Big K has three dangerous acids in it: oxalic acid, phosphoric acid, and hydrochloric acid.

Ochoa says she routinely used the chemical, as well as others, in enclosed spaces and without gloves. "I thought this is how I was supposed to clean," she says. Theochem recommends the use of rubber gloves and goggles with Big K.

On Thursday, November 18, Ochoa was cleaning a bathroom in the hospital complex with chemicals including Big K and Clorox, when she says she began to convulse and vomit uncontrollably. "I was by myself and I got scared. Then I got a really bad headache and I started sweating. I ... called my supervisor.... After a while, they gave me two Alka-Seltzers. Then another supervisor came and asked if I was still feeling bad. I said yes. He said, "Well, because you're feeling bad, we'll let you go home as soon as you finish cleaning the bathrooms.'"

Ochoa says she has felt sick since the incident.
OK, Unicco....Unicco, now where have I heard that name before? Oh yeah, that would be the same Unicco who employed window washer Jose Camara, who was killed May 8 after falling 90 feet. OSHA fined the company $152,500 for alleged willful and repeat violations of safety standards. Following the announcement of the OSHA citation, SEIU Local 615 and the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH) recently called for a criminal investigation of Camara's death, citing UNICCO's failure to implement safety measures ordered in 2003 after a fatal accident involving two window cleaners.

The Florida report, written by industrial hygienist Peter Dooley, alleges eight violations of federal safety regulations.

As usual when health and safety issues are raised during a union organizing campaign, the company dismissed the report as a fabricated orgainizing issue.
UNICCO spokesman Doug Bailey acknowledges noxious chemicals have been used, but asserts all employees have been instructed in their use and given goggles and gloves. "This is a report the union came up with and paid for, so what do you expect it to say?" he asks. "If the union wants to, they can report [the problems] to OSHA and have an investigation."
The union did, in fact, want to report to OSHA and filed a complaint, signed by 34 workers, last week alledging violation of the Hazard Communication Standard (CFR 1910.1200) which requires employers to train employees about the chemicals they are exposed to on the job.

In response to the report, Unicco issued a statement claiming that the report, "bought and paid for by union activists" -- a true statement that would seem more likel to win union support than lose it -- and that the report was "both factually inaccurate and without merit" because they hardly ever use the really dangerous materials and have never had any health problems.

Unicco employees at the University of Miami earn as little as $6.33 an hour, and are not provided with health insurance for themselves or their families. Although the workers are employed by Unicco, the union is trying to put pressure on the University to force Unicco to recognize the union. UNICCO staff at schools such as Harvard earn between $13 and $14 an hour and have fully paid health insurance.