Victims' Rights Caucus

Speeches

PORT ARTHUR, Texas -- Two utility workers have been fired after reporting they got sick on the job, despite other workers reporting the same symptoms and concerns about their health, KPRC Local 2 Investigates reported Wednesday.

The two fired workers and their congressman all said the government agency that is supposed to protect workers from job site dangers fell short in this case, perhaps leaving other workers in danger.

"It's scary," said Jason Murrell, who lost his job after 13 years with AT&T. "It's scary and you just wonder who has to die in something like this before any attention gets brought to it. Why does somebody have to die or get seriously injured or have serious health effects?" he asked.

Murrell was fired by AT&T along with coworker Mike Miguez, a 12-year employee of the utility. Both men say they refused to climb back into a manhole in Port Arthur because it kept making them sick.

"I started coming down with, I guess the only way to describe it is like a chemical burn in the back of your throat. Your stomach gets bloated and it's a weird feeling," said Murrell. "It feels like your throat and your stomach are connected. I've never had that feeling before."

Miguez said they also suffered from dizziness and nausea. He said, "There was a lingering throbbing or tightness in my throat like it was closing up. It wasn't a sore throat, something I had never experienced before."

Both men saw doctors, but received no diagnosis or firm reason for their symptoms.

They said AT&T sent testing crews to the manhole after they first reported the illness. A contractor also cleaned the utility hole, so both men returned to work, but they immediately reported getting sick once again.

"I was still getting those same symptoms," said Miguez. "It tells me that there's still something in there that wasn't tested for that's causing this illness."

In their termination letters, AT&T wrote that each man had, "failed to return to his work assignment" after "the project was deemed safe to proceed."

Both men said they had never faced any discipline on the job and were happy with their job until this happened.

The men then complained to the nation's job site watchdog agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but they said OSHA closed the books on the investigation after taking AT&T's word for it that everything was fine. The agency conducted no tests of its own and never visited the job site, according to OSHA documents sent to the fired workers.

In his complaint to OSHA, Miguez wrote that workers were forced to stay in the manhole when tests had not been performed properly.

In a letter from OSHA on April 9, 2009, OSHA wrote that, "We have been advised by AT&T that the hazards about which you complained are presently being corrected."

AT&T wrote to OSHA that, "The alleged complaint was investigated." The utility said no sheens were found on the water in the manhole and no odor was detected.

OSHA then wrote that, "OSHA feels the conditions have been corrected --- satisfactorily abated."

"The problem was with OSHA," said U.S. Rep. Ted Poe (R-Humble). "It makes me concerned because we don't know if they are taking sides in other issues or not without doing their own evaluation. It just seems to me, based on what I have learned, that rather than do their own tests, they just took somebody else's tests and said this is appropriate. They should never do that."

Miguez said, "Instead of trying to find what was causing sickness, they were doing everything they could not to find it."

Both Miguez and Murrell said they paid to have the air tested in the manhole, since AT&T had only tested the water and some of the solids in the manhole.

The testing