Firm Appeals Fines in Asbestos Removal : Lancaster: State levied $50,000 in penalties against contractor for exposing cleanup workers to the material.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Lancaster flooring contractor is appealing nearly $50,000 in fines imposed after state officials said the firm exposed four workers to asbestos while improperly removing floor tiles containing the potentially deadly material from a Kmart store.

State workplace-safety officials levied the unusually heavy fines on Omni Floorcovering Inc. after an investigation of the company's removal of 45,000 tiles from a Lancaster Kmart in November.

Cal-OSHA officials said Omni violated several laws governing removal of asbestos, which was once widely used in fireproofing and insulating materials. It was banned by the U.S. Environmental Agency after it was found that inhalation of even tiny amounts can cause lung cancer and asbestosis, a crippling and often fatal lung disease that takes years to develop.

Cal-OSHA said Omni placed asbestos waste in open cardboard boxes for disposal rather than impermeable bags as required by state law after it was hired to help remodel the Kmart's "Eatery Express" area.

In addition, state officials said, Omni failed to dampen asbestos-laden material that was being removed to prevent fibers from rising into the air, where they could be inhaled by workers. The firm also cleaned up asbestos-laden scrap in a dry condition, rather than using a special vacuum designed for extremely small particles.

Cal-OSHA inspector Haifa A. Hughes said in a report that "the floor tile was asbestos-containing and documentation shows that the employer was well aware" of its presence.

Omni President Tony Chisholm told Hughes that he and another man used putty knives and a gardening hoe to pull up the tiles, which were thrown away in a Kmart trash bin. Hughes also said Chisholm told her he had been assured the tiles did not contain asbestos.

Chisholm subsequently appealed the fines, saying his firm had violated no laws and that the penalties are unfairly harsh.

Omni sales representative Cynthia Bradley said Tuesday that only a small portion of the removed tile contained asbestos and those tiles were torn out by a certified asbestos abatement contractor, not Omni.

"We don't remove asbestos . . . We don't want our people touching it," she said.

Bradley said that after the remodeling, federal Environmental Protection Agency officials said there was no need for special precautions because the removed tiles were not dangerous.

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