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O'Hare 'People Mover' worker wants to wear hazmat suit to avoid persistent sinus infections, but bosses say no

O'Hare 'People Mover' worker wants to wear hazmat suit to avoid persistent sinus infections, but bos
O'Hare 'People Mover' worker wants to wear hazmat suit to avoid persistent sinus infections, but bos 02:32

CHICAGO (CBS) -- A Chicago man wants to wear a hazmat suit while on the job, but it's no-go with his bosses. Morning Insider Lauren Victory explains his situation for you to decide who is being unreasonable: the employee or employer?

When you're on the fly at O'Hare International Airport, you're probably not thinking about the people behind the Airport Transit System, more commonly known as the People Mover, the train between terminals.

"They have to shut the power off, and we actually go on the track, get the train, and drive it back in," said service tech Ron Merker.

He's been troubleshooting issues on the Airport Transit System for nearly two decades.

Ever since the People Mover was upgraded with new cars, he's encountered a problem he says he can't fix: sinus infection after sinus infection.

"I said, 'Hey would you please test these trains? Because I'm getting ill,'" said Merker, who thinks there is mold on the trains and that he is allergic.

A May 6 letter from Human Resources says that "spot remediation" was done, and that "prior 'mold' issues have been fully abated."

The memo also said air sampling tests are "inconclusive" and that there's "no evidence of mold currently in the trains."

But Merker said he is still getting sinus infections, which is why he wants to wear a full-body hazmat suit to work. His doctor, Dr. T.S. Wright, suggested the suit, also calling for an oxygen mask in the medical note that Merker provided to his bosses at O'Hare Airport Transit System, Inc. (OATS).

According to May 27 memo, H.R. told Merker his request was reviewed, but is considered unreasonable, especially because there is "no reason to believe that there is mold on any trains or in any working areas at levels that exceed what would ordinarily be present in outdoor air."

"He told me, 'Hey, listen, you can't wear that thing in there. People are going to think there's something wrong with the train.' You know, I get it. It's optics," said Merker of a conversation with higher-ups.

As an alternative, OATS provided Merker with a special P100 mask, which is stronger than an N95.

Merker said he tried the P100 on the trains last week and still didn't feel well. He's not sure what to do next. He has one sick day left.

"Is it the most comfortable thing? No. I haven't been looking forward to it," he said, while donning the full protective gear for our cameras. "You do what you gotta do."

That could mean getting fired for refusing to ride without the protection he wants.

CBS 2 reached Dr. Wright by phone. He said perhaps not a full hazmat suit is necessary, but that he still wants to "maximize protection" for his patient. Wright emphasized he is not a pulmonologist, but in his medical opinion, Merker should at least be granted the ability to wear a heavy duty mask with oxygen supplied – similar to one a fireman would wear.

The Chicago Department of Aviation released the following statement:

"The Chicago Department of Aviation and its contractors do not comment on individual personnel matters. Further, there is absolutely no environmental risk to passengers or employees who rely on the Airport Transit System."

UPDATE (7/26/2022): CBS 2 received records requested from the City about air samplings performed on the O'Hare Airport Transit System in 2020. The results from an August 2020 test by SET Environmental, Inc. show a slightly elevated presence of mold in some train areas compared to what's commonly found in the air. In December 2020, a different company, Bombardier Corporation, conducted more indoor air quality tests and concluded "…no additional recommendations are warranted."  

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