The Abbotsford school district failed to ensure that spilled asbestos was removed from a local high school in a “timely fashion” last December and did not notify staff when the cleanup would occur, according to an inspection report from WorkSafeBC.
The report, issued earlier this year and obtained recently by the Abbotsford News, states that the district did not properly “minimize the risk of exposure of airborne asbestos fibre.”
The report does not name the school, but district communications coordinator Dave Stephen (in photo) has confirmed it is W.J. Mouat Secondary.
WorkSafeBC inspected the school after receiving a complaint about potential exposure to asbestos when vermiculite – a material used in insulation and which can contain asbestos in older buildings – began falling from the ceiling by the school’s main entrance, according to the inspection report.
The vermiculite was first discovered on Dec. 11, 2014 by a custodian, who called the district and was told to cordon off the area. A “wet floor” sandwich board was used to block off the area.
The WorkSafeBC report states that the school district contacted an asbestos abatement contractor on Dec. 19, making arrangements for the cleanup work to begin Dec. 29.
School was in session from the time of the initial report on Dec. 11 until Dec. 19, when the Christmas break began.
WorkSafeBC concluded that the district failed to comply with occupational health and safety regulations in four areas, including the 18-day delay in ensuring the spill was cleaned up.
It also failed to inform clerical and custodial staff working in the last week of December that asbestos remedial work was going to take place.
“An employer must ensure that the employer’s workers are made aware of all known or reasonably foreseeable health or safety hazards to which they are likely to be exposed by their work,” the report stated.
The report was also critical of the district for not having an “asbestos exposure control plan” in place or a person who can assess the risks of asbestos exposure and determine the urgency of dealing with it.
Stephen said the district waited until Dec. 19 to begin remediation because few people would be in the building at the time, and it was believed it did not pose a risk if it was not disturbed or moved around.
Meanwhile, the material was cordoned off, he said. Information on the WorkSafeBC website indicates that disturbing the material can cause fibres to become airborne, posing a health risk through inhalation.
Stephen acknowledged that staff were not properly notified of the cleanup.
“There was an assumption that the number of people in the building would be at an absolute minimum during this time, but unfortunately the appropriate communication was not provided to all staff who may have had reason to enter the school during the winter break,” he said.
He noted a hazardous materials consultant was already at work on an asbestos management plan at the time of the incident, with the first draft submitted to WorkSafeBC in early April.
District representatives have met with W.J. Mouat staff to advise them that, as part of this plan, employees will be advised in the future of any asbestos abatement work. As well, copies of the inspection report were posted in staff areas.
“The district has been working closely with WorkSafeBC to ensure we comply with the regulations around asbestos,” Stephen said.
He said six Abbotsford schools have had accidental “spills” of vermiculite so far this year.
Shawn Mitton, a regional prevention manager with WorkSafeBC, said health problems with asbestos tend to be more common when someone is exposed to the material over a long period, although “the exposure limit is undefined.”
It can often take years or decades for health issues to arise, and Mitton said most of these situations occur to people involved in the renovation and demolition of older buildings. (Asbestos is only found in buildings constructed before 1990.)
In 2013, 59 out of 128 workplace-related deaths in B.C. were linked to asbestos exposure, Mitton said. From 2004 to 2014, there were 545 such deaths.
“It continues to be a challenge and there continues to be a risk out there,” he said.
Mitton said employers are required to do an inventory of their buildings and identify and manage the risks, including asbestos, and WorkSafe will assist them with that.
Asbestos exposure can lead to chronic health problems such as lung cancer and scarring or thickening of the lungs, according to the WorkSafeBC website.
Concerned workers can report possible asbestos exposure to the online exposure registry program by visiting worksafebc.com and clicking on “forms.”