OSHA gives the OK

Cal/OSHA tests reveal no asbestos in Butte Hall

Chico State professor Mark Stemen is concerned that duct tape used to seal holes in the ceiling tiles at Butte Hall may not be adequate protection from the asbestos above.

Chico State professor Mark Stemen is concerned that duct tape used to seal holes in the ceiling tiles at Butte Hall may not be adequate protection from the asbestos above.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

A state health report on the environmental health of Chico State’s Butte Hall shows no asbestos fibers were detected during an inspection performed last month. However, there are skeptics on campus who question the conclusions of the one-page report.

The inspection by the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration was conducted as a result of concerns raised last summer about health conditions inside the seven-story building following the lung-cancer-related deaths of two people who had worked in the building. The OSHA case was launched last October based on a complaint.

The agency’s inspection took place on Feb. 5, was completed on March 11, and the case was closed on March 15. During that time OSHA inspector James Craighead took six air samples from different locations in the building, looking for the presence of asbestos.

His single-page report says: “An inspection was done to determine if university employees were being exposed to asbestos fibers in Butte Hall while daily working in the building.”

It goes on to say, “It has been determined that no violations of any standard, rule, order or regulation set forth in Title 8, California Code of Regulations, and Division 5 of the California Labor Code has been found as a result of this inspection.”

It concludes: “This notice relates solely and exclusively to the inspection on the above date, which was not necessarily a comprehensive inspection of the worksite. Due to the transitory nature of worksite conditions, violations can occur occasionally or routinely and may be undetected by any given inspection. This notice does not preclude the issuance of citations or any future inspection.”

During his Feb. 5 inspection, Craighead said he was initially instructed to take only one sample from the seventh floor, which is where one of the deceased worked. He was talking to Chico State geography professor Mark Stemen, who works on the fifth floor of Butte Hall. Craighead instead took a total of six samples from multiple floors of the building. He also told Stemen that he wanted to use a leaf blower to stir up the ambient air a bit, but was told by his bosses not to do so.

When Butte Hall was constructed in 1972, asbestos fireproofing was sprayed on the building’s steel framework. The following year, the federal government banned asbestos spray for fireproofing. Some who work in Butte Hall have pointed out the many places where holes in ceiling panels have been patched with duct tape, and wondered how well that shields the space below.

The tests by Craighead did not include areas above the ceiling panels. However, in January 2011 that space was tested by a private company and asbestos was not detected.

The outspoken Stemen remains skeptical about the building’s safety based on the OSHA testing.

“They put those air monitors out into locked rooms for four hours and did not encounter an asbestos particle,” he said. “[Craighead] wanted to stir up the dust with a leaf blower to see if anything had settled, and he was told not to by his boss.”

Stemen also questions how well the ceiling tiles screen out possible asbestos fibers from the office spaces below. He says the fireproofing is breaking off, but concerned employees were told not to worry because the material is not breaking down into fibers that could be inhaled.

He said he thinks the administration is, in the cliché of the day, kicking the can down the road by not fully and aggressively addressing the situation. He has a large “Danger Asbestos” sign on his office door.

“The university wants to use this report to say, ‘Everything is fine. Go back to sleep.’ What they have to do is come clean and admit they have a problem. In two or three years, when the tape falls off and the tiles crack, no one’s going to think to look and have them replaced. The building should be monitored, but [the administration] won’t admit it has a problem.”

Joe Wills, the university’s director of public affairs, said while there’s not much to the final report, he did find it “reassuring to get the results from OSHA.”

“We had dust samples tested in the fall and then another test looking for allergens and other things that can make air quality low,” he said. “There is naturally occurring asbestos, and it can be detected in any building or outside because it is in the environment.”

Wills referred further questions to Marvin Pratt, the university’s director of environmental health and safety. Pratt said there is no more monitoring planned other than during construction projects that may disturb asbestos. And in fact one of Butte Hall’s elevators is slated for replacement this summer.

Pratt said the fireproofing is falling off but not breaking down into fibers and that the duct-tape-repaired ceiling tiles provide adequate protection.

“Even before the ceiling tiles were repaired, the air testing we did in there showed there were no airborne asbestos fibers,” he said. “The sealing was done just as a precautionary measure to assure that we are being as safe and diligent as possible for the employees.”