Floor Finishing Hazards


When Daniel Simon had the wood floors of his home in Hull refinished last July, he assumed it was a straightforward and safe procedure. It wasn't. The chemicals used to seal the floor combusted, killing contractor Tinh Huynh and sending Simon's house up in flames.

On May 17th, Simon joins a group of labor, industry and health advocates at the State House, calling for immediate steps to stem the loss of life and property from dangerous floor finishing chemicals and practices.

Formed in response to the death of Tinh and two other floor finishing workers who lost their lives in a similar fire in Somerville, the Floor Finishing Safety Task Force is announcing a groundbreaking agreement by suppliers to halt the sale of the highly flammable product lacquer sealer.

"We were devastated that Tinh lost his life," said Simon. "We want to make sure this doesn't happen to anyone else."

The Task Force includes representatives from the floor industry, trade unions, workplace safety, public health and environmental groups. It calls for new safety regulations that would require mandatory training and others safety measures that would reduce the risk of fire.

As a major chemical supplier to Vietnamese-owned floor finishing businesses, Capitol Wood Floor Supply owner Michael Le says the deaths of the three Vietnamese floor finishing workers all in the past two years were a "wake up call" for owners, employees and consumers.

Le recalled, "I suddenly realized that my customers – and their customers – were being exposed to safety hazards. I understand their language and their need to earn a living so I decided to help." He helped by joining the Task Force.

The Somerville fire that killed Vietnamese floor workers Toan Bui and Ha Vu was also caused by a combustive floor chemical. That fire, in September, 2004, took these two workers' lives, injured two others and destroyed the three-family home. In the past two months alone, two more floor finishing fires are known to have caused extensive damage to homes in Taunton and Dennis.

A survey conducted last summer by the community group Viet AID found that 127 of 144 floor finishing contractors registered in Boston have Vietnamese surnames. Le and the two other floor finishing suppliers serve virtually all of the Vietnamese owned businesses and their agreement to freeze the sale of lacquer sealer would thus affect the vast majority of Boston area floor finishing businesses.

"This issue affects so many members of our community," said Hiep Chu, Viet AID's executive director and a member of the task force. "The state must take immediate steps to end not only the urgent tragedies from fires but also the long-term health problems that come from working with these highly toxic chemicals."

The task force met for four months to review and revamp a licensing bill filed by State Representative Martin J. Walsh (Dorchester). Their purpose was to be sure that it was effective at promoting safety and health for workers and homeowners and was accessible to small business owners of diverse cultural and economic backgrounds.

The bill they propose would require that all owners and employees become trained and certified; that owners would designate a certified worker to be responsible for reviewing and completing a safety checklist; and that companies provide consumers with a floor finishing safety fact sheet informing them about the hazards associated with products.

"Tragedies like the Appleton Street Fire are preventable," stated Senator Jehlen, who represents the Somerville neighborhood that suffered from the devastating floor finishing fire in 2004. "The work of the task force will save lives and property."

"We have a monumental opportunity to make sure the lives of these floor finishing were not lost in vain," said MassCOSH Executive Director Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, who spearheaded the Task Force along with Bowdoin Street Health Center, New Ecology Inc., Viet AID, and University of Massachusetts at Lowell. "By moving forward to replace toxic floor products with safer ones, promoting safety training and ensuring that consumers are aware of their options, we are going to save lives."


About the Floor Finishing Safety Task Force:

In September 2005, Bowdoin Street Health Center, Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH), Viet AID, and New Ecology Inc., established a task force of floor finishing stakeholders to put forward recommendations that would promote safety in this industry. Participants include representatives from labor, floor finishing companies, suppliers (including all the suppliers that serve the Vietnamese community), environmental and health and safety groups. Technical support is provided by: UMass Lowell; Massachusetts Office of the Fire Marshall; the Department of Environmental Protection; the Department of Occupational Safety; the Dorchester Occupational Health Initiative and the Department of Public Health.

Khadijah Britton
(W) (617) 825-7233 ext. 14
(C) (917) 957-1837
Hiep Chu
Viet AID
(W) (617) 822-3717