An April investigation by CBS4's Jim DeFede detailed the harsh and harmful working conditions experienced by employees of Eulen America, one of Miami International Airport's contractors. Those conditions included exposure to extreme heat, vermin, and blood and other bodily fluids. And for such little pay and limited hours, the workers said they often couldn't pay their bills.
Eulen subcontracts employees to clean airplane cabins and handle luggage for American, Delta, and other airlines at MIA. The company has denied the allegations of inhumane working conditions and, in response to DeFede's report, characterized the criticism as "attacks" by a few employees and a union with an ax to grind.
But despite the company's refutations, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has found some of those working conditions severe enough to warrant penalties.
Following a five-month investigation this year, OSHA slapped Eulen with a multitude of citations for serious safety and health violations. OSHA initially fined the company nearly $80,000 for the violations. Online records show the penalties have been reduced to about $47,000 by an informal settlement between OSHA and the company.
"OSHA's citations of serious health and safety violations which could lead to 'death or serious physical harm' are a vindication of what Eulen employees have been saying for months, that they are working under unsafe working conditions," says Helene O’Brien, Florida director for 32BJ SEIU, the union representing Eulen workers at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. "Workers first raised these concerns a year ago, and Eulen's response was to imply that their employees were lying."
The violations include exposure to excessive heat, dangerous noise levels, and blood-borne pathogens.
The citations say Eulen employees at MIA worked in high temperatures that were "causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees." Ramp workers and baggage handlers carrying materials were at highest risk for dying or developing heat cramps, heat exhaustion, or heatstroke. Several employees told CBS4 in April that water was not always easily accessible and their schedules didn't allow time for breaks.
The citations also say Eulen did nothing to safeguard ramp workers from hearing loss. An OSHA investigator observed two such workers who were exposed to harmful noise levels for more than six hours in one day. Workers were also unprotected from 15-foot falls because some of their equipment lacked guardrails.
Employees were exposed to blood-borne pathogens when handling hypodermic needles and cleaning up passengers' blood on planes. The OSHA citations say the company didn't provide training on how to safely handle such cleanups or offer hepatitis B vaccinations to at-risk workers.
Esteban Barrios, a Eulen ramp worker and whistleblower, said in a media release from Service Employees International Union (SEIU) that employees have been simply asking for a safe place to work and for the company to respect their right to unionize.
Though Eulen's MIA workers aren't represented by the Florida branch of SEIU, the union has tried to help raise awareness of their concerns. This afternoon, SEIU will host a press call with U.S. Reps. Donna Shalala and Frederica Wilson, Miami-Dade Commissioner Eileen Higgins, OSHA health and safety expert Peter Dooley, and several airport employees to discuss the violations.