CSU failed to ensure safety of students working with hazardous materials, audit says

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.

The California State University Chancellor's Office has failed to ensure the safety of employees and students who work with hazardous materials, including those at Sacramento State where a 2016 chemical spill caused injuries and possible long-term health damage, according to a state audit.

The critical report by the California State Auditor says the Chancellor’s Office has increased risks for staff and students by not addressing deficiencies despite repeat recommendations by the CSU audit office to increase health and safety oversight.

"Despite the fact that many of these deficiencies have remained unresolved for nearly two decades, the Chancellor's Office has not taken the steps necessary to hold the campuses accountable," according to the audit.

When questioned by officials at the State Auditor's Office, the risk management director at CSU said the Chancellor's Office does not consider itself as an oversight entity responsible for health and safety, but instead provides guidance, resource materials and collaboration, according to the report. He said the campuses are better positioned to address daily operations.

The state audit examined CSU campuses in Sacramento, San Diego, Sonoma and Channel Islands. It also surveyed lab technicians at all 23 campuses.

All CSU campuses use hazardous materials for instruction and research, according to the report. Students and employees can be exposed to chemicals in laboratories, classrooms and stockrooms.

The auditor determined that the four campuses did not provide the oversight and training necessary to ensure the safety of students and employees.

Specifically, the audit found none of the campuses had joint safety committees, were able to show they reviewed their chemical plans annually or show that employees and staff regularly received safety training.

Sacramento State, San Diego and Sonoma also did not always conduct regular inspections of safety equipment like fume hoods in labs, fire extinguishers, emergency eye washes and showers. Some of the campuses also did not notify employees about rooms containing asbestos.

The audit of laboratory assistants at all 23 CSU campuses found:

  • 46 percent said their schools do not seek their input when assessing risk to employ health and safety in chemical stockrooms or laboratory areas.
  • 36 percent said they did not receive laboratory health and safety training before starting work.
  • 11 percent perceived there were roadblocks to reporting concerns about hazardous or unsafe working conditions.
  • 18 percent believe campus management has not emphasized the importance of health and safety when using hazardous materials.
  • 13 percent stated that their campus does not provide a health and safe work environment.
  • 9 percent stated that their campus did not provide necessary personal protective equipment in a timely manner.

“The CSU Chancellor’s Office and campuses involved concur with and will comply with the audit recommendations," said CSU spokeswoman Toni Molle in an email. "The university takes seriously the health and safety of all of our employees and students and the Chancellor’s Office plans to conduct health and safety audits at all 23 of the campuses beginning in 2019. CSU is committed not only to providing a healthy and safe environment by complying with applicable laws and regulations, but to fostering a climate of collaboration and transparency to ensure that compliance.”

The audit acknowledged recent efforts by CSU to address concerns, including meetings with working groups to address risk management issues and environmental health and safety concerns.

The audit says CSU can do more. It recommended forming safety committees at each campus and ensuring they meet and fulfill their responsibilities. It recommended that CSU develop a health and safety reporting template by November and require campuses to use it annually. The audit also asked CSU to form a systemwide joint safety committee by September and comply with state laws requiring signs by the entrances of mechanical rooms that contain asbestos.

The report recommends that the Sacramento and Sonoma campuses outline when their chemical committees are to meet. It also asks all four campuses to review their records to identify employees who have not taken the required training.

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.

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

The audit determined that Sacramento State needs to increase its oversight of chemical safety.

In a separate Sacramento State incident, the university initially shut down 85 sinks and fountains with lead levels above 5 parts per billion in January 2017. The university later reopened 42 of the fountains and targeted the other 43 for repair or replacement.

The university was criticized by some for moving too slowly and for reopening some fountains that tested below the state-recommended level 15 parts per billion, but above the level required for bottled water – 5 parts per billion.

The auditor found that Sacramento State reacted appropriately in the drinking water situation.

“Safety is our highest priority at Sacramento State," said Sacramento State President Robert S. Nelsen in a statement. "We welcomed the California State Audit team to our campus last fall, and I appreciate their thoughtful and diligent attention to this assignment. We are already working to fulfill the recommendations in the audit, and I am pleased with our progress over the past two years."

The audit was requested last year by Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, at the urging of the university employees union. Wood is a member of the Legislature’s Joint Legislative Audit Committee.

"People were being harmed and we just couldn't get anyone from the CSU to listen to us," said Neil Jacklin, CSU Employees Union president. "The state needs to hold the CSU accountable for its disregard of the health and safety of employees and students, and to enact statutes that provide meaningful state oversight and accountability of the CSU's operations and budget."

The review comes as CSU 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 Molle.

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