Cosmetic Maintenance

OSHA closed its investigation of an unsafe work environment at a Richmond Heights construction site in October by taking the word of the construction company owner responsible for the abhorrent conditions.

When the wrecking crew from Flex Construction began demolition work on the apartment building at 7701-7703 Wise Ave. in Richmond Heights in early October, it didn’t bother getting a building permit or an asbestos inspection beforehand — nor were its workers provided with personal professional equipment.

“Light Cosmetic Maintenance.”

Lacking N-95 masks or other safety gear, they began gutting one of the apartments, while residents still occupied the other units. Interior walls were razed and flooring removed and dumped illegally.  During this process, which continued for days, potentially hazardous materials were released inside building, including asbestos, a known human carcinogen.

A complaint was subsequently filed with the St. Louis office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on behalf of the workers by a concerned citizen. But OSHA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Labor, quickly dismissed the case based on the assurances of Diego Utera, the construction company owner.

In his written response to Complaint #1671686, OSHA duty officer John M Teel wrote:

“Flex Construction has advised me that the hazards you complained about have been investigated. The employer states that the employees are doing light cosmetic maintenance work.

“With the information provided, OSHA feels the case can be closed on the grounds that the hazardous condition do not exist,” wrote Teel.  “If you do not agree that the hazards you complained about have been satisfactorily abated, please contact us within ten (10) business days of the date of this notification. If we do not hear from you within that time, we will assume that the hazards have been corrected and will take no further action with respect to this case. …”

An appeal was immediately filed, which included photographs of the extensive demolition work and a list of other officials contacted at the municipal, county and state level. OSHA failed to reply to the appeal.

OSHA is not the only government agency that appears to have been lax in enforcing the law in this case. The Richmond Heights Building and Zoning Administration also blithely accepted the misrepresentations of Flex Construction and  Artemis Holdings LLC, the owners of the building. After tenants informed him of the demolition work, Richmond Heights Building and Zoning Administrator James Benedick continued to refer to the project as just “a little painting.”

After being cited for not securing a building permit, Flex Construction and Artemis Holdings submitted false information on its belated application, claiming work was limited to the remodeling of the kitchen and bath at a total cost of $500. When that characterization was challenged by residents of the building, a second permit was issued that increased the total cost to $5,000, but the permit still downplayed the renovation as a “remodeling” job.  In reality, the entire apartment was gutted and debris was hauled away, including all the walls and the asbestos-contaminated floor tiles.

Eventually, in late October, the St. Louis County Department of Public Health issued a Notice of Violation for failing to properly inspect the apartment for asbestos, which is against a federal EPA law.  The issues related to the asbestos abatement remain unsettled.