Baltimore City government workers are subjected to “egregiously” unsafe conditions, union says
Exposed wiring, absence of sprinklers, trenches with no trench boxes – conditions that have caused employee injuries and fatalities in the past are going uncorrected, the City Union of Baltimore says in a scathing report
Above: Donald and Elizabeth Morris of the City Union of Baltimore and Denise Riley of AFT-Maryland observe a moment of silence on Friday for city workers who have died on the job. (Fern Shen)
Concerned about persistent reports of unsafe, health-harming workplaces, the main union representing Baltimore City government employees investigated last summer.
The conditions the union said it found at multiple work sites were “deplorable,” giving as examples:
• Workers at a highway maintenance yard subjected to collapsing asbestos ceilings directly above their pest-infested work area.
• Water meter readers required to climb into confined spaces as much as 80 feet deep without ventilators, respirators or fall protection harnesses.
• Health clinics providing services through the Women, Infants & Children (WIC) program where the air was befouled with mold, lead paint and asbestos.
• Workers in trenches without the legally mandated “trench boxes” needed to prevent collapses like the one in 2018 that killed 20-year-old Kyle Hancock, who had been repairing a city sewer line.
“We are demanding the city provide a safe and healthy work environment,” City Union of Baltimore (CUB) President Antoinette Ryan-Johnson said at a news conference Friday at its headquarters on Howard Street.
The union released its report as part of a memorial service for municipal workers who died on the job.
In addition to Hancock, they remembered DPW supervisor and CUB member Trina Cunningham, who drowned in wastewater at the Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant in 2019 after falling through a rusted and dilapidated metal catwalk.
CUB member Tim Gray said he was appalled by City Hall’s failure, in the wake of such tragedies, to institute the procedures and training that employees need to protect themselves from injury on the job.
“Workers don’t even have the tools that are necessary to check the air to make sure that it’s safe,” said Gray, a construction building inspector at the Department of General Services.
“How can they possibly get home [safely] if they don’t even know what hazards they need to find? That they need to be aware of? Until somebody like Trina Cunningham comes along, and finds the hazard for us.”
An investigation by the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health (MOSH) at the Patapsco plant in far South Baltimore, where Cunningham had worked for more than 20 years, found 24 safety violations. On 34 grates on six catwalks, 63% of the clips meant to keep the grates in place were missing or loose.
Other violations cited the Department of Public Works’ failure to inspect and repair walking and working surfaces, guardrails, ladders, crane operations and electrical installations.
A 2020 MOSH investigation of the city’s other treatment plant, at Back River in Baltimore County, “found 25 violations, many of them similar to those found at Patapsco after Cunningham’s death,” according to the CUB report.
The lawyer for Cunningham’s family said the lawsuit they filed against the city and several contractors was recently dismissed and will be appealed. “We plan to fight vigorously,” attorney Ronald D. Brooks told The Brew.
Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration is reviewing the union’s report, spokesman Cirilo Manego said, but so far the mayor’s office has not provided a comment on it.
The Department of Public Works was also asked questions about the report on Friday and has not responded.
• UNSAFE & UNPROTECTED How Baltimore is failing to protect worker safety and health – City Union of Baltimore report released 4/28/23
CUB, which represents about 5,000 city and school system employees, together with the American Federation of Teachers-Maryland, made a push this year to investigate safety issues for public employees in the city, said spokesman Ray Baker.
The report covers a wide variety of job categories – traffic light installers, Housing Authority inspectors, traffic crossing guards and more. A large number of poor practices were found at two departments – Transportation and Public Works.
Reviewing documents on file with the state, the report found that MOSH has issued 336 violations during 95 inspections at city worksites over the last 10 years, most of which were initiated through complaints.
“It is unacceptable to have city workers who deal with high-voltage electricity be in cherry pickers with no insulation” – CUB President Antoinette Ryan-Johnson.
Certain kinds of infractions occurred more frequently than others.
“Baltimore City has consistently failed to comply with MOSH’s electrical, fire protection and hazard communication standard, with violations found on 37 occasions,” the report noted.
“Ensuring that workers and the public are protected from electrocution, fire and hazardous chemicals is a basic tenant of life safety. However, Baltimore City struggles to meet its mandate.”
Ryan-Johnson highlighted this issue during her remarks at the memorial, noting, “It is simply unacceptable to have city workers who deal with high-voltage electricity be in cherry pickers with no insulation.”
During the period reviewed, from 2012 to 2022, state records indicate there were four fatalities and six reported serious injuries and incidents.
Neglect and Bullying
Speakers on Friday said the state shares blame for lax enforcement and failure to proactively inspect city government worksites.
Over the last 10 years, MOSH inspected just six city workplaces – all of them coming after worker injuries.
“There are many more accidents and injuries that are either left unreported or did not result in an inspection,” the CUB report said.
For example, after an employee lost part of two fingers in 2018 when an unsecured hatch fell and struck their hand, “MOSH issued zero violations as a result of this injury,” according to the report.
Union leaders said they hold city leaders primarily accountable for allowing unsafe conditions and “toxic work environments.”
“The issues Baltimore City workers face come directly from management that neglect the safety and health of their employees and oftentimes bully them,” the report said.
Gray, whose job involves supervising third-party contractors the city has hired, said he has seen “city employees that are bullied into doing stuff that’s hazardous.”
“The bosses will say, ‘Hey, we got lead paint here, the contractor doesn’t want to do it, why don’t you just come and rip it out for us?’” he told The Brew. “No training, no PPE [personal protection equipment]. What’s a guy going to say? He needs the job.”
“The bosses will say, ‘Hey, we got lead paint here, the contractor doesn’t want to do it, why don’t you just come and rip it out for us?’” – CUB member Tim Gray.
CUB workers surveyed said their biggest on-job health and safety concerns were communicable and infectious diseases, workplace stress and indoor air quality. Asked if any health and safety training provided by an employer had ever been attended, 58% responded “no.”
Union officials at the Friday event displayed photos to drive home their point, including several showing deep trenches without proper shoring, which is required for any trench five feet deep or more.
One of these photos showing that workplace violation, ironically, was on a banner spotted at a DPW building in West Baltimore, and subsequently noticed at other DPW facilities.
“I couldn’t believe it when I saw it – right there on this officials sign applauding their workers it shows a worksite with all these violations,” said Keith Wrightson, assistant director of health issues for the American Federation of Teachers in Washington.
“It was a trench with no trench box, and a bunch of other issues you could see in the picture.”
Several locations were singled out for having repeat health and safety violations.
A 2019 inspection of DPW’s water maintenance yard at 2947 Washington Boulevard, for instance, resulted in 17 violations, including unsafe ladders and walking/working surfaces, improper use of cranes and faulty electrical wiring.
After a subsequent June 2022 inspection, MOSH planned to issue “five repeated violations on the same items the city failed to abate during the 2019 inspection.”
Another location with multiple violations is DOT’s highway maintenance facility on Falls Road, familiar to passersby because of the partially collapsed historic Ma & Pa Railroad Roundhouse used to store road salt.
CUB visited and found many safety and health hazards inside the building, where the union says 60 people work.
MOSH found violations at the facility in 2015, 2019 and 2021, yet conditions there remain “deplorable,” according to the union.
“Work areas are not properly illuminated and presumed asbestos ceilings are collapsing directly above employee work areas. Break rooms are unsanitary, and evidence of a pest infestation is visible,” the report said.
“To make matter worse, the roof is collapsing, and structural walls leaning, indicating the potential for collapse. On-the-job injuries are also of concern at this location. During 2021, 19 workers reported significant workplace injuries that resulted in days away from work.”
Another workplace that CUB examined was a school system maintenance warehouse at 1230 East 20th Street.
“Extremely old machinery has not been cleared out, pest infestations are manifesting, and an extremely cluttered workplace area exists,” the report says.
This is problematic because, in the case of a fire, the old machinery and improperly stored chemicals could burn the building down in minutes and employees would be unable to escape due to the cluttered work areas, the report says.
“The place is a ticking bomb. There are no up-to-date fire extinguishers or visible sprinklers.”
Vicious Dogs, Dead Bodies
In addition to the site descriptions and MOSH inspection data, the report also includes anonymous worker testimonials.
Vehicle processors, who work with police on impounded vehicles, say they are not given gloves, masks, respirators or safety glasses.
“The biggest hazards come from within the cars themselves, where employees have encountered drugs, needles, dead bodies, and flammable objects,” they told the union.
Housing inspectors and code enforcement officers describe walking down dangerous alleyways and exposure to drugs.
“Employees have been carjacked, mauled by dogs, robbed, harassed and threatened,” the report said, their only defense being pepper spray “with no replacement once it expires.”
“There is a need for Tasers,” the report says.
Need for State Action
At Friday’s news conference, some union members said they are looking to the new administration of Gov. Wes Moore to beef up MOSH inspections and enforcement.
AFT-Maryland President Kenya Campbell said she recently met with the Maryland’s new secretary of labor, Portia Wu, at her new office in Baltimore.
“We noticed a lot of empty offices there,” Campbell said, recounting Wu’s promise to address the agency’s staffing shortages.
Campbell said she pointed out the window of Wu’s office to where some AFT members work in the aging State Office Building at 301 West Preston Street.
“I said, ‘They have rats, they have bats, they have snakes, they have all kinds of asbestos,” Campbell recalled. “I said, ‘I sure hope you’re not sitting in a building that’s also sick.’”
The CUB report called on the Scott administration to immediately:
• provide equipment and implement confined space, electrical, fire, bloodborne pathogen and hazard communication programs.
• involve workers in all matters of safety and health.
• establish a health and safety committee in city agencies.
• make safety education and training a priority.
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