At first it was a minor nuisance: construction workers began ripping up floor tiles in the dormitory of Yonkers Fire Station No. 12. The firefighters had to deal with the mess and the noise in the rooms where they continued to sleep, shower, play pool and work out.
The renovation began on May 3, 2013 and the tile removal took a few days. Some broken flooring material and dust was left behind, but the firefighters kept to their usual routines. City maintenance workers continued repairs in other parts of the firehouse.
Stunned They Used It
Then on June 25, according to a complaint filed by the firefighters’ union with the state Department of Labor, a member of the construction crew made an offhand comment to a firefighter.
“‘I can’t believe you guys are still using that room,” was how union President Barry McGoey later paraphrased his remarks. “It has asbestos in it.” The substance was in the floor tiles, the worker said. Since the flooring had been ripped up, the particles were likely airborne.
Mr. McGoey’s union, Local 628 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, contacted the Fire Department the following day, and officials shut the door to the renovated area and placed a piece of duct tape across the handle. They taped a sign to the door that read, “Asbestos: Do Not Enter.”
Widely used in insulation and other housing materials for most of the 20th century, asbestos was eventually linked to deadly lung disease in some who breathed in its fibers. According to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website, exposure generally occurs only when the substance is disturbed in some way to release particles into the air, such as during building remodeling or demolition.
Lab Confirmed Fear
At the Yonkers firehouse, union officials took samples of the flooring materials and submitted them to a private lab, which detected asbestos. The city also sent samples in for testing, with the same result. Though the percentage of asbestos sounds small—about 3 to 4 percent in some samples—an attorney for Local 628 pointed to Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines.
A quick review of OSHA standards for the construction industry shows that careful removal procedures are dictated when a substance contains more than 1 percent asbestos. Removal of flooring material, according to the attorney, Richard Corenthal, falls into the second-most-dangerous of four categories of activity, the next step down after removal of insulation materials. Workers are required to take numerous precautions in such cases.
A city source, however, portrayed the amount of asbestos in the firehouse as trivial and the incident as overblown.
“What we were told was that it was at the level of what you or I would remove from our kitchen, if you have an older home; nothing that you needed protective equipment for,” the official said.
Filed Safety Compliant
On July 24, the union filed a complaint with the state Department of Labor’s Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau (PESH), charging that at least 50 firefighters, and possibly as many as 75 to 80, had been exposed. (Firefighters are assigned intermittently to different houses according to the city’s need.) The PESH inspectors didn’t arrive to investigate until Sept. 6, and made a second visit four days later. The agency blamed a “technical glitch” for the delay in assigning the case.
In New York State, public-sector employers must comply with Federal OSHA standards for hazardous substances like asbestos. After taking air samples in September, the inspectors found very low levels of possible asbestos fibers in the firehouse—“far below the 0.1 fibers/cc” applicable exposure limit, they wrote in their report.
Based on samples, observations and interviews with firefighters and the department, they concluded that the complaint was not sustained. The city was issued a non-serious citation for failing to submit an annual summary of occupational injuries and illnesses for the previous year.
Mr. Corenthal wasn’t satisfied with that result. Years ago, he served as Deputy Chief of the state Labor Bureau, where he not only supervised enforcement of the state’s safety and health law, but also helped obtain the Federal Government’s approval of the law when it was first established.
May Have Exposed Families
On Feb. 11, he filed an appeal of the PESH ruling on behalf of the union with the New York State Industrial Board of Appeals. In it, he noted that while the investigators found little evidence of airborne asbestos, they only sampled a hallway and a locker room outside the sealed area where the contaminated material lay. The purpose, the inspectors wrote, was “to verify the asbestos levels…in the areas where the public employees (e.g., firefighters) may work.”
Mr. McGoey noted that his members had been living in the rooms with the disturbed tiles for weeks before the area was closed off—it was that air that should have been tested, he said, and immediately, not four months after the work was done.
“Almost all of the firefighters have expressed concerns about being exposed to the asbestos and the possible health risks posed by that exposure,” he said. “Some of the members were concerned that they may have unknowingly exposed their families and young children to asbestos fibers that they may have carried on their shoes, clothing and personal belongings when they went home after working.”
The appeal also described what the union found to be a suspicious coincidence. After two months in which the city cordoned off the dormitory with only duct tape across the door, the union claimed that city officials arrived and set up plastic sheeting to more-thoroughly seal off the area just 24 hours before the PESH inspection.
Advance Notice No-No
“Department of Labor regulations…prohibit advance notice of inspections with limited exceptions which are not applicable here,” Mr. Corenthal wrote in the appeal. He asked the board to pull telephone and electronic records to determine if the city was tipped off about the visit.
“The facts here are so suggestive of prior notice you can’t close your eyes to it,” he said last week.
The union’s petition charges numerous health violations by the City of Yonkers and the Fire Department. Under state law, vinyl flooring tiles should be assumed to have asbestos and should be tested before any work begins,
Mr. Corenthal said, especially in a decades-old building like Fire Station 12. The removal should have been conducted by trained asbestos handlers wearing proper protective equipment. And the area should have been thoroughly sealed off during the renovation, he said, with negative air pressure established and air monitors placed throughout the firehouse during the work.
The health damage that asbestos can cause depends on how much is present, how airborne it is, and how long a person’s been exposed. It can take years or even decades for victims to develop cancer or asbestosis—a progressive lung disease—from exposure. A Centers for Disease Control fact sheet notes that workers can take the fibers home on their clothes or tools; family members have died in some cases.
Insidious Type of Hazard
“Something like this is a very insidious type of hazard, and I think there needs to be a lot more vigorous enforcement,” Mr. Corenthal said.
He added, “The potential damage to health is already done. It’s really critical that this never happens again…I mean, you can’t play with people’s lives and then say ‘oops’ afterwards.”
In New York State, fines are only triggered if a deadline is set for asbestos cleanup—called abatement—and isn’t met. The union wants PESH to issue a string of violations to the city and Fire Department, and to document the exposure in case anyone gets sick.
Mr. McGoey said the city eventually hired an asbestos abatement crew and “did it properly”—sealing off the room, creating negative pressure, setting up air-monitoring stations throughout the house—but that wasn’t until December.
Committed to Safety
Yonkers mayoral spokeswoman Christina Gilmartin said she couldn’t comment on the allegations about the PESH inspection’s timing because the matter is still under investigation.
“The city has advised [PESH] that it remains committed to ensuring the safety of both its employees and the public,” she said in an e-mailed statement. “Unlike the fire union president, the city has the utmost confidence in the PESH’s ability to protect public employees. The administration takes issue with many of the union’s factual assertions, especially any claims that the city would ever compromise employee safety.”