My fellow blogger Celeste Monforton has been working for the past several months with the Houston worker center Fe y Justicia to respond to outrageous employer behavior that exposed construction workers to asbestos and raised questions about how the city selects contractors. Earlier this week, Jeremy Rogalski and his investigative team colleagues at KHOU 11 News released a news story documenting what occurred.

Last summer, a heat wave and drought in Texas dried out the soil so much that underground voids put pressure on Houston’s aging water pipes. Six hundred water mains broke, creating an urgent need for extensive repairs. The repairs weren’t all conducted appropriately, though. Rogalski reports:

The I-Team discovered some of the workers doing those repairs were put in harm’s way—exposed to cancer-causing asbestos while repairing the broken pipes.

“I’m scared,” said Luis Matute.

Matute and others claim no one told them that the water mains they were sawing through were made of asbestos concrete.

I-Team:  “When you cut the pipe, what happened?”

Matutue:  “Smoke, whoosh, dust, came all the way, like whoosh.”

Fellow worker Abraham Rodriguez said the same thing.

“It made everything a white dust cloud,” Rodriguez said in Spanish.

Worse, both men said they didn’t have on a respirator mask or protective clothing at the time. That’s an industry norm when working around asbestos dust.

“Asbestos is a known carcinogen,” said Celeste Monforton. She spent 11 years working at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency that regulates health and safety issues in the workplace.

Monforton said the real health hazard occurs when asbestos is aggressively disturbed, such as sawing or hammering.

“You’re releasing the (asbestos) fibers into the air,” Monforton said. “They penetrate into your lung tissue and other tissue in the body,” she said.

The I-Team discovered Houston has more than 1,000 miles of asbestos concrete pipe underground, in which more than 200 emergency repairs were done last summer.

One contractor the city hired to do the work was Reytec Construction Resources, Inc, which then hired the subcontractor that employed workers Matute and Rodriguez.

I-Team: “Did your bosses ever tell you this was asbestos?”

Matute: “Never.”

I-Team: “Did they ever tell you to wear protective gear?”

Matute: “No, nothing.”

And Rodriguez also told us something similar:

I-Team: “No one ever told you?”

Rodriguez: “Nada.”

Rogalski notes that Reytec is one of just a few hundred companies on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s severe violators list, on the basis of three repeat safety violations. Reytec told KHOU that it had met with subcontractors regarding asbestos safety, but the subcontractor that hired Matute and Rodriguez said no meetings were held and he was never even told the pipes contained asbestos.

Laura Perez-Boston of the Fe y Justicia Worker Center (part of the Interfaith Worker Justice Worker Center network) points out in Rogalski’s piece that other cities, including Dallas, specifically require city-hired contractors to provide respirators, eye protection, and disposal suits. (Even in the absence of such specific policies, though, employers should be following OSHA standards regarding asbestos.) In a news conference Tuesday, Fe y Justicia called on Houston’s government to adopt policies to prevent city funds from going to contractors that illegally and immorally allow workers’ exposure to hazards like asbestos:

As a Coalition, we are shocked and angered to learn that our tax dollars and public money is awarded to a contractor with such an egregious labor record. Since April 2011, Reytec Construction Resources has received more than $22 million in payments from the City of Houston. The firm was placed on federal OSHA’s “severe violator” list after repeatedly violating trench safety regulations. As a Coalition, we are even more frustrated that the City has no system in place to ensure that contractors working in the City have upstanding labor rights’ records. The City must develop a system to check with the government agencies and courts that are charged with enforcing basic labor laws and ensure that contractors seeking permits and licenses or submitting a bid do not have a record of violating labor laws. We strongly urge Mayor Parker and City Council members to pass an ordinance that includes these basic protections.

Luis Matute and Abraham Rodriguez also spoke at the news conference. They expressed their fears about what kinds of symptoms they might experience years from now as a result of their asbestos exposure. But they’re also facing a more immediate problem: they’ve found it very hard to find jobs since they started trying to address illegal actions by their employer.

Matute and Rodriguez first approached the Houston worker center last September not because of asbestos, but because they’d worked for 16 consecutive days on water main repairs but hadn’t been paid. As Fe y Justicia staff starting talking to the two men about their work conditions, concerns about asbestos emerged. For the past year, Fe y Justicia has been trying to get Houston’s government to address wage theft problems, with little to show for it.

It seems that the combination of asbestos concerns and media attention has succeeded in attracting officials’ interest, where wage theft complaints alone have not. Celeste, Matute, Rodriguez, and Fe y Justicia worker center representatives have a meeting scheduled with the mayor’s office next week.

Improved Houston policies and enforcement regarding city contractors’ compliance with wage-and-hour and health-and-safety standards would help thousands of workers. Let’s hope Luis Matute and Abraham Rodriguez are also rewarded for their courage in standing up for workers’ rights — actions that have already harmed their personal financial situations, even as they potentially improve their fellow workers’ ability to be paid fairly and protected appropriately from occupational hazards like asbestos.