The Public Eye: Cal-OSHA fines Sacramento County for asbestos incident

Published: Saturday, Sep. 28, 2013 - 10:33 pm

State regulators have cited and fined Sacramento County for its inadequate response last year to the collapse of a ceiling containing the carcinogen asbestos.

In August 2012, a water leak in the county’s old administrative building sent ceiling materials tumbling to the floor of offices in the Department of Water Resources. Because the building’s central air was left running after the accident, employees and the public might have been exposed to asbestos, some safety inspectors have said.

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health cited the county this month for two violations of the state labor code. The county failed to properly train employees how to protect themselves from asbestos and failed to report the incident to Cal-OSHA as required with any “potentially hazardous release of a regulated carcinogen,” the agency found.

Cal-OSHA fined Sacramento County $2,810.

The county has filed an appeal with the Occupational Safety and Health Board, a three-member panel appointed by the governor. Because of the pending appeal, the county declined to comment about the citations and fine, county spokeswoman Chris Andis said.

More than a year after the accident, some of the 230 employees working in the old administrative building continue to have questions about whether they were exposed to the toxic materials.

“We’re trying to figure out what’s going on,” said Sonia Hernandez, president of the county chapter of the Association of Professional Engineers, which includes people who worked near the accident site. “Employees are concerned about whether they were exposed.”

She said she contacted Cal-OSHA and requested a meeting to get questions answered. She said the agency will meet with county employees next month.

Erika Monterroza, a Cal-OSHA spokeswoman, said that because of the pending appeal, the agency could not comment on any risks the employees might have faced.

Exposure to asbestos increases the risk of cancer and other respiratory diseases. Risk of illness depends on the length and intensity of the exposure, but short-term encounters can cause serious illness, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As reported by The Sacramento Bee in April, county administrators and some county safety inspectors have provided differing accounts of what happened following the ceiling collapse. Three safety inspectors provided written statements to Cal-OSHA saying that asbestos was left on the floor with fans blowing on the material and the building’s central air left on.

County managers responsible for the cleanup, however, said the material on the floor did not contain asbestos.

Cal-OSHA apparently did not resolve the question, as its citation refers to “potential” asbestos in the ceiling material.

Safety inspectors, in their complaint to Cal-OSHA, also said the county failed to require janitors to wear protective gear while cleaning up the material. County managers responded that the protective gear wasn’t necessary because asbestos wasn’t present.

Cal-OSHA disagreed, finding that the county failed to use “appropriate work practices, emergency and cleanup procedures, and personal protective equipment” during the incident.

David Fletcher, a county asbestos worker, said he submitted material for tests that revealed the presence of asbestos. After the results were in, he said county managers ignored his request to turn off the building’s air units and clear people of the area.

“It was done all wrong,” he said last week. “I’m an asbestos lead worker, and I was basically overridden.”

Jeff Rommel, a safety inspector who filed the report with Cal-OSHA, said county managers are sticking to their original account, despite the state’s findings.

“I’m being harassed,” he said. “I was told in an email from my supervisor that I am to support my co-workers, the county and this process in the affirmative.

“They’ve been harassing me ever since I filed the complaint.”

Call The Bee’s Brad Branan, (916) 321-1065. Follow him on Twitter @BradB_at_SacBee

Read more articles by Brad Branan

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