Positive tests for asbestos at various construction sites have forced the University of Rochester Medical Center to shut down all construction involving interior drywall on its property, indefinitely.
Now, OSHA and the New York State Department of Labor are on-site, investigating a potential asbestos exposure to construction workers.
Asbestos was discovered in February and March, where construction crews were actively working on a renovation project inside URMC's former Blood and Bone Marrow Wing. According to asbestos survey data obtained by YNN, asbestos chemicals chrysotile and anthophyllite were discovered in drywall, caulk, spackle, cement and fire stop materials. Only chrysotile was disturbed demolition, with amounts ranging from as little as two percent to as much as 6.7-percent of bulk samples.
According to an official from the EMSL Analytical, Inc. asbestos survey lab in Depew, N.Y., any amount more than one percent must be considered hazardous under New York State guidelines, and be removed under the provisions of NYS Code Rule 56.
The University says the asbestos was disturbed during demolition work, which may have caused it to become airborne, though air tests performed two days after the second potential exposure returned negative.
Construction workers who have been on the project for months maintain that the air tests were taken too late to tell whether asbestos was an airborne threat. The workers tell YNN they are worried for their health and safety.
"We just don't want to see this get pushed under the rug," said one worker, who wished to remain anonymous. "It's affected a lot of local construction workers."
The University confirms that construction workers on a number of interior demolition projects were most at risk for low-percentage exposures to asbestos. However, University officials did say they cannot be sure exactly how much asbestos the workers were exposed to, or for how long those exposures may have taken place.
"They as the owners had the responsibility," says the anonymous construction worker. "And they hadn't been doing what they needed to do."
The University admits that on any project involving demolition of old facilities, its crews are required to test for asbestos. In this project, the University relied heavily on historical records and assumptions about which materials were contaminated. In fact, because of those historical records, asbestos-laden flooring was removed from the project area in January.
However, the drywall surfaces in the facility were not included on the list of possible asbestos-containing materials. As workers tore out drywall using saws and hammers, they notified safety officials of a strange material coating the drywall joints and duct work. That material tested positive for asbestos.
Similar materials already torn out and stored in covered dumpsters were later tested, and also received positive results for asbestos.
"I believe it was a surprise," says Jose Fernandez, the University's Director of Campus Planning, Design & Construction. "We have always acted as if there was no asbestos material in there."
Historical records reportedly did not account for the possibility of past construction crews using asbestos-containing construction materials. Fernandez points out that it is still a legal and unregulated practice to use asbestos-containing materials in construction in New York State. But those materials must be identified before any demolition and removal.
In a meeting with construction workers earlier this month, Fernandez told workers about the issue with the University's historical records. YNN obtained an audio recording of that meeting, taken by a worker. The worker identified one of the University speakers as industrial hygienist Bob Passalugo. On the recording, the man identified as Passalugo admits the that University's first asbestos survey contained errors.
"He (the University-employed asbestos surveyor) uses institutional knowledge for the other wall surfaces," the man identified as Passalugo says on the recording. "And again, because of the date it was installed, it should have been asbestos-free."
"Our asbestos person got egg on his face," the man says.
A worker on the tape says later: "Your historical information was wrong."
The man identified as Passalugo replies: "That's correct."
Because the historical asbestos records proved inaccurate, the University says it cannot trust any of its old asbestos records for the Medical Center campus. In response, URMC has now shut down any construction project where workers are demolishing drywall – including the Blood and Bone Marrow Wing, the Inpatient Rehab area, and the Wilmot Cancer Center expansion, among others. All of those areas are now being re-tested for asbestos.
In the meantime, the University has issued an apology to the possibly-affected construction workers. Fernandez insists that University asbestos-survey protocols will be changed in the future.
"Moving forward, we will be doing more robust material sampling and surveying, to ensure this doesn't happen again," he says.
But the anonymous construction worker who spoke with YNN, says there must be more effort to placate construction crews.
"If... they actually acknowledge that the amount of exposure is significant, and do not deny it, that would definitely help," he says.
When asked about possible asbestos exposure for those who have spent time at the hospital recently, the University was extremely open and transparent with YNN. Officials say the only chance that patients or workers could have been contaminated is if asbestos dust was tracked through common areas by the construction workers. The University believes it has taken measures to prevent that from happening. However, officials do admit that there is a small chance that patients or employees could have been exposed.
Because of the measures taken to protect common areas from dust and debris, University officials maintain that any chance for civilian exposure to asbestos is very small. They say if it did happen, the exposure levels would have been very minute.
There is also no chance that patients or employees could have been exposed to asbestos-containing material at anytime before construction and demolition began. The University tells YNN that all asbestos-containing material was held inside the walls, and the only way it can become a risk is when it's disturbed. At the time construction workers actively cut and hammered through those walls, no patients were in the construction areas.