Education

Sacramento State had lead and chemical safety problems. Does CSU have systemwide issues?

A Sacramento State chemical spill has lab techs questioning their workplace safety

A chemical spill at Sacramento State last year has led to questions about whether the university is putting its lab workers at risk from exposure to hazardous substances.
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A chemical spill at Sacramento State last year has led to questions about whether the university is putting its lab workers at risk from exposure to hazardous substances.

Lead exposure and a chemical spill at Sacramento State are expected to feature prominently in a state audit scheduled for release Tuesday examining whether the California State University system has health and safety deficiencies.

As The Sacramento Bee reported last year, Sacramento State chemistry lab employees said they became infertile or had other health problems because they were exposed to chemicals in badly ventilated rooms and were required to clean up a solvent more hazardous than they realized. The university also shut off drinking fountains last year after a professor found high levels of lead in the water.

The audit was requested last year by Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, at the urging of the university employees union. The California State Auditor is reviewing the adequacy of safety equipment, regulations and training at CSU campuses in Sacramento, San Diego, Sonoma and the Channel Islands.

The auditor is looking specifically into the Sacramento State drinking water issue and protocols at the four campuses for handling chemicals.

“My request was driven by some extremely concerning events reported to me including employees working in hazardous conditions, exposure to toxic fumes, delayed reporting of lead in drinking water, employees asked to clean up a hazardous chemical spill without protective gear and an employee subjected to harassment and retaliation for reporting asbestos," said Wood, a member of the Legislature’s Joint Legislative Audit Committee.

The review comes as the CSU system also faces a claim by its former Environmental Health and Safety Manager, Joseph Shepler, alleging that university officials have intentionally concealed problems to minimize legal liability. Shepler says he was wrongfully terminated in his first year for bringing attention to those issues.

CSU provided Shepler's allegations to the state auditor, according to system spokeswoman Toni Molle.

In his claim, Shepler called the chemical spill at Sacramento State a “serious incident” and questioned why CSU officials didn't share recommendations by UCLA investigators after the accident. Instead, the UCLA report was concealed, he said. Shepler said university officials told him specifics could not be released because it could create liability.

The Sacramento Bee requested the same document in May 2017, only to have 32 of 50 pages redacted. Kristin Weigle Roberts, who handled The Bee's public records request for the university, said the redacted pages were exempt from disclosure because of privacy issues.

Four CSUS employees filed an $80 million claim against the university in December over the chemical exposure.

In a separate Sacramento State incident, Shepler said high lead levels found in campus drinking fountains and sinks during a student research project spurred debate at multiple campuses. He said officials elsewhere in the CSU system discussed whether to test drinking fountains and, if so, what standard they should use.

He said he was reprimanded by CSU officials after telling health and safety staff that the lead standard the Sacramento State professor used for the research study - 5 parts per billion - was a public health goal for California. Sacramento State ultimately reopened water sources that tested below 15 parts per billion - the current state recommendation.

"Mr. Shepler was employed with CSU for less than a year and is currently disputing his dismissal," Molle said. "While we strongly disagree with the allegations made by Mr. Shepler and the merits of the claim itself, we take all matters concerning environmental health and safety very seriously."

Molle said she could not go into deeper detail because it involved an ongoing personnel dispute.

The university convened an environmental health and safety task force well before the state audit was requested, she said. Among the new initiatives are a lab safety group, a fire-life safety group, hiring an expert consultant and purchasing lab safety practices software and online safety training modules.

Molle said the system has had five industrial-related deaths of employees or volunteers in the last 10 years. All but one person died in a vehicular accident: a woman at CSU Long Beach in 2011 who was crushed after she tried to climb out of an elevator that was stuck below the third floor. The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health did not find CSU Long Beach at fault, according to KNBC.

CalOSHA inspected CSU campuses 70 times in the last decade. In those cases, 24 inspections were prompted by accidents and two by fatalities. The employees were found to have died of natural causes. The agency issued 32 citations, according to Frank Polizzi, a spokesman for the state Department of Industrial Relations.

Here is a small sample of those accidents:

  • In May 2016 at CSU Los Angeles, a man sustained a head injury, a broken clavicle and three broken ribs and was hospitalized. He was helping to replace a heating and air conditioning system during the remodel of a classroom when he fell from a ladder. The university was fined $6,500 by OSHA and cited for failure to report a serious injury and hazards related to scaffolding.
  • In March 2012, a building service engineer at CSU Channel Islands unintentionally opened a water valve, spraying 180-degree hot water. He was hospitalized for 12 days with second- and third-degree burns to his face, scalp, neck, torso and upper extremities. The university was fined $18,300 by OSHA.
  • In February 2014, a 20-year-old employee at Chico State was making hamburger patties with a machine that had a broken guard over its feed chute. His finger was pulled into the rollers. He was taken to the hospital where his finger was amputated to the first knuckle. The university was cited by OSHA and fined $22,500.

California State University is cooperating with the state audit and has supplied records and unfettered access to its campuses, Molle said.

"We are prohibited by the (California State Auditor) to comment until the final audit is released, but the CSU has safety policies in place and anticipates those policies will be updated as appropriate," she said.

Shepler, who was hired in 2016, said university officials didn't want him to look too closely at safety violations because of a pending court case filed against CSU in March 2017 by Thomas Sargent, an environmental health and safety specialist at Sonoma State.

Sargent was terminated after revealing concerns about handling of lead and asbestos at the campus, according to the Shepler’s complaint. After reviewing documents and talking to the attorney handling the Sargent case for the university, Shepler said he told university officials they had fired the wrong man.

Sargent sued California State University and won $387,000 in a whistleblower suit in September 2017, according to court documents. He asked to be reinstated in his health and safety job.

Because Sargent had filed a claim under the Private Attorneys General Act, which allows plaintiffs to recover penalties for themselves and other employees for labor code violations, the judge also ordered that 231 faculty and staff who worked in Stevenson Hall between 2013 and 2015 split $2.9 million, according to the judgment.

CSU has appealed.

"More than half of the jury's findings regarding alleged safety matters at Sonoma State were in CSU's favor, and the jury consistently found that Stevenson Hall - the building at Sonoma that was at issue during the trial that lasted nearly two months - is a safe and healthful place to work," Molle said, adding that the jury found some technical regulatory violations but none that were serious.

The university is preparing to renovate the building, according to the Press Democrat.

Since February 2017, Sonoma State has accumulated another $8,395 in fines for asbestos-related violations, according to CalOSHA reports.

Because Shepler has filed his own Private Attorney Generals Act complaint, CalOSHA is investigating his claims, said Peter Melton, spokesman for the Department of Industrial Relations. Shepler can only sue if the department does not take action, Melton said.

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