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"I've only worked there for about five months. I was in good health when I started working there, but now I'm sick."
Gisela Ochoa cleans bathrooms and offices at the University of Miami's medical complex for $6.25 an hour and has no medical insurance. She's been feeling fatigue, nausea, and strange internal pain for weeks. "The union paid for me to see a doctor, and the doctor said I have to take some tests right away. It could be kidney, liver, I don't know.... My supervisors took me to the emergency room after the union started asking questions about me."
Ochoa, a 36-year-old Honduran, works for Massachusetts-based UNICCO, a national company that contracts janitorial and other services. For the past year organizers have been trying to unionize a 425-strong workforce employed by UNICCO and contracted to the university. This week the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) released a report about conditions based on a survey of about 50 workers and written by industrial hygienist Peter Dooley. The author, who was hired by the union, alleges eight violations of federal safety regulations.
The report states that more than half of the workers experienced headaches, eye irritation, and back pain as a result of work. Forty-seven percent said they had trouble breathing, 42 percent alleged skin irritation, and 32 percent reported nausea resulting from workplace conditions.
Dooley also contends that 76 percent of employees who handle dangerous chemicals say they never received training in their use.
"There were no signs or handouts that described any of the materials we clean with," Ochoa says.
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."
If Bailey is wrong and the study is correct, the university or UNICCO might be violating federal safety regulations, according to OSHA regional administrator Benjamin Ross.
"Any time employees have responsibilities requiring them to handle a product that might contain hazardous chemicals ... the employer has an obligation to train those workers with regard to the hazards presented by the chemical," Ross says. He declined to comment specifically about UNICCO.
Other violations alleged in the report:
Only 24 percent of employees who handled dangerous chemicals were taught what to do in case of emergency.
Only 38 percent of employees were given safety equipment required when handling potentially hazardous chemicals.
Forty-two percent of the workers surveyed clean blood; only 25 percent are trained in cleaning blood, and 44 percent have the required protective equipment.
University officials would not answer questions via phone or fax. "We need a chance to see the report," says spokeswoman Annette Herrera.
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, öWell, 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.
After SEIU organizers began asking UNICCO and UM about the cleaning solvent, says Ochoa, "I saw supervisors taking the Big K out of all the supply closets."
Another worker, 49-year-old Maria Galindo, contends she saw the same thing: "The supervisors took it away and they never said why. They just said, öWe're not using it anymore.'" (Bailey knew nothing about the chemical's removal.)
Galindo has worked for UNICCO in the hospital complex, cleaning bathrooms and offices, for two years. During that time, her salary increased from $5.40 an hour to $6.33 an hour. She has no health benefits. Galindo says she began feeling sick months ago, but she developed symptoms when she mixed Big K and Clorox to clean the bathroom. "I did a stupid thing," she says. "Nobody told me to mix it up like that. I figured somebody would have told me if it was dangerous."
After making the toxic brew, Galindo blacked out and fell down. She called her supervisor.
"They said, 'Well, if you feel worse, call us again,'" she says.
Galindo's nose has been sporadically bleeding ever since, and she also complains of chest pains, breathing trouble, and fatigue. SEIU paid for her to see respiratory and pulmonary specialists last week, but she hasn't received her test results.