State inspectors: Raleigh Housing Authority fails asbestos requirements

08/15/2014 6:17 AM

08/15/2014 6:18 AM

The state Labor Department has fined the Raleigh Housing Authority $2,500 after an inspection found the public housing agency didn’t tell its employees they’d be working in asbestos-filled buildings and failed to provide state-mandated hazard training.

The department’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health issued two citations on Aug. 1. In addition to raising the asbestos issues, inspectors reported that the employer didn’t develop a written program to communicate hazards, then put the plan in effect.

Spokeswoman Dolores Quesenberry said the department couldn’t comment on specifics because the case is still open. On Thursday, the housing authority requested an informal conference with safety inspectors, she said.

That means Housing Authority officials will get a chance to present evidence and negotiate a settlement, possibly with a plan to fix the problems, and receive a reduced fine.

Housing Authority Director Steve Beam said his agency will follow all recommendations from the Department of Labor.

“I would expect we’ll go significantly beyond” the state’s requirements, Beam said. “I think we place safety as the No. 1 item for both our residents and our employees.”

Beam said the Housing Authority received the citations Aug. 4, but employees weren’t notified about them until this week because the department head involved was on vacation.

Beam said that employees get regular safety training and that some are certified in dealing with hazards like asbestos and lead-based paint. “They were told to assume that all areas had asbestos,” he said.

But state law requires maintenance workers be told specifically about the presence, location and quantity of asbestos-containing material within their work environments, according to the citation. And the state mandates at least two hours of training in how to recognize damaged asbestos materials that could get into the air; inspectors said the housing authority’s instruction fell short.

A number of the agency’s older public housing complexes contain asbestos, including Glenwood Towers, Heritage Park, Mayview and Kentwood.

Roy Rutledge, a consultant at the nonprofit Safety and Health Council of North Carolina, said the state’s rules are important to keep workers healthy. Inhaling asbestos – which is no longer used in new building materials – can cause lung cancer and other serious illnesses.

“The major problem with asbestos is if you disturb it,” Rutledge said, adding that rules exist to protect workers from unwittingly working with hazardous chemicals.

The Housing Authority’s second citation – the missing hazard communication program – is common statewide, Rutledge said. The Department of Labor labels it “nonserious.”

“There are folks who are not aware (of the requirement), and there are those who don’t know the extent that they have to go to,” Rutledge said.

Beam said the violations are a rare occurrence for his agency, and that he’ll soon start thorough training to make sure employees know more about asbestos.

“This is the first safety issue we’ve had brought to our attention in 20 years,” he said.

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