Union charges asbestos exposure in UM buildings Supervisors didn't study asbestos surveys, union says.

March 02, 1992|By Michael K. Burns | Michael K. Burns,Staff Writer

COLLEGE PARK -- An employee union at the University of Maryland says workers and students were recently exposed to hazardous asbestos dust when repair workers unexpectedly uncovered hidden asbestos in ceilings, pipes and walls.

Union officials said maintenance supervisors assigned repair work without consulting detailed asbestos surveys of university buildings that pinpoint the potentially hazardous material.

Asbestos, which is linked to lung and stomach cancer, was used for insulation and fireproofing in many of the campus' 350 buildings.

"This is a dangerous situation for the people that we represent, but also for students and other campus employees," said Thomas Barrett, vice president of Local 1072, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

University safety officials say that air samples taken in three suspect buildings showed asbestos levels that met government safety limits, and that there was no threat to students.

But they admit work supervisors had not always used the asbestos building surveys available to them in planning repairs.

"I believe it has occurred in the past," said Robert W. Ryan, acting director of environmental safety, who noted that shop supervisors have been told to refer to the asbestos surveys when assigning work. Updated survey manuals are also being distributed, he said.

Asbestos awareness training is being repeated for campus maintenance and repair workers on the 1,300-acre campus, he added.

Meanwhile, graduate-housing tenants complain they have been kept in the dark about possible asbestos problems in their buildings.

"My greatest concern is that we know asbestos is there, but the university has not informed us of what is happening," said Torrey Volt, a resident of University Hills who has pressed authorities for an explanation of asbestos removal in her building's laundry room after chunks of insulation were found on the floor.

Repair workers were exposed to hidden asbestos at the Reckord Armory and the Tawes Fine Arts Center, Mr. Barrett said.

Students were exposed in December at the armory, Mr. Barrett said, when classes continued through the day in a lecture hall where asbestos-containing debris sat in a corner. Employees had been barred from entering the room by environmental safety experts, who had the room locked that night. The debris was later removed by a trained asbestos cleanup crew.

AFSCME then put a sign on the door advising students to report to the campus health center for physical exams, an action Mr. Ryan said needlessly escalated concerns. Besides, he noted, a physical exam could not tell students whether they had inhaled the tiny mineral fibers.

In January, the union complained that as many as 15 repair workers had been exposed to hidden asbestos while removing ceiling tiles in the Tawes building over the holidays.

Air samples did not reveal any asbestos hazards there, Mr. Ryan said. But his investigator did find lots of asbestos dust in the building.

Samples wiped from the floor and from fixtures in Tawes "indicated that there is/was significant deposition of asbestos fibers onto various surfaces within the building," said industrial hygienist Christopher Benas. Some 12,000 square feet of asbestos-containing ceiling tiles were removed by workers from Tawes before the inspection, he said.

"It is apparent that visible dust within the [Tawes] building appears to contain a high percentage of asbestos," he said, adding that the building's ventilation system had blown loose asbestos material throughout the confined spaces above the ceilings.

There is no legal limit for levels of asbestos in dust on the ground or surfaces, only for airborne concentrations.

The union filed complaints with the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health office for worker exposure at Reckord and University Hills. MOSH found no violations at Reckord and is still investigating the housing complex. The union decided not to file a complaint over the alleged Tawes episode.

Michael Kruise, a painter for the graduate-housing units, said workers are sent to do repairs where asbestos insulation is flaking. Supervisors deny there is any danger to workers, he said.

State workers who are exposed to asbestos are entitled to a physical exam and periodic medical monitoring.

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