A Northeast Kingdom antipoverty group didn’t tell employees that one of its St. Johnsbury facilities contained asbestos and failed to address fire and trip hazards, exposing workers to health and safety risks, according to a state investigation that concluded in May.
Northeast Kingdom Community Action, a nonprofit that provides social services in the region, paid nearly $3,500 in fines this year for violations at its 115 Lincoln St. building, records from the Vermont Occupational Health and Safety Administration show.
Acting on a complaint from a then-employee, inspectors in December visited the facility, one of the group’s two main “parent child centers” that house playgroup spaces and parenting services.
Floor tiles directly beneath two employees’ chairs were made of 5% asbestos, investigators found.
“The floor tiles at these two locations show significant deterioration and are breaking and being crushed to powder by employees sitting in rolling desk chairs,” an investigator wrote in a report for the case, which was closed after the group paid $3,469 in penalties and temporarily abated the problems.
“You do want to treat it seriously because you can generate dust,” said Bruce Lippy, director of safety research at the Center for Construction Research and Training, a national workers’ safety organization.
But “the risk of asbestos-related disease dealing with floor tiles is very low,” he said.
That isn’t to suggest people should let asbestos-containing tiles deteriorate, Lippy said, and employers should tell employees if it is present in their workplace.
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“I think that was an oversight,” Lippy said of the nonprofit’s apparent failure to inform employees.
Investigators found that at least one employee had been sweeping the floor around one of the damaged tiles and hadn’t been made aware of the asbestos. Debris swept up by the employee was tested and contained no asbestos, but that sweeping could have caused exposure, investigators concluded.
The employee might not have swept the tiles had they known about a 2014 report commissioned by Northeast Kingdom Community Action that showed asbestos present in the facility, investigators found.
The report, included in state records, found tiles and materials throughout the building contained the mineral.
A floor tile in a play-group room had an asbestos content of 10%, with 3% found in the adhesive beneath it. Floor tiles in the “gym/kitchen” area of the building registered 5% and 8% asbestos content. About 11,000 square feet of the building contained materials with asbestos levels greater than 1%, the report found.
Jenna O’Farrell, the organization’s executive director, said the entire building has since been renovated with new flooring to address the identified risks.
O’Farrell said the survey was commissioned before she came aboard last July and that she didn’t know why it hadn’t been shared or acted on by previous management.
“I don’t know why the report was ignored or who was responsible,” she said.
She said management told employees about asbestos in the building a few weeks before the complaint with the state was filed.
“I was very surprised,” she said of the moment she learned about the complaint.
Jessica Vintinner, a spokesperson for the state Department of Labor, said in an email that the most important question about asbestos-containing material is whether it can become friable — crumbled and able to be spread through the air — rather than how much asbestos is in it.
In flooring materials like those in the St. Johnsbury facility, asbestos is generally stable unless the material is damaged, Vintinner said.
“So, when an employer further stabilizes the material we would accept that as abatement in lieu of removal,” Vintinner said.
Scientists don’t know whether any specific amount of asbestos exposure can trigger disease, said University of Vermont professor Arti Shukla, who studies the biology behind asbestos-induced diseases.
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But “there is a very clear link between asbestos and lung diseases,” she said
What’s most understood, Shukla said, is the link between asbestos exposure and a type of cancer called mesothelioma. “There is no doubt,” she said. “If you hear mesothelioma, this is asbestos.”
Symptoms of the disease can take decades to appear, and it’s usually terminal by the time doctors diagnose it, she said.
Case records also show that the employee who alerted investigators said in January that she planned to resign from her position because she felt the nonprofit’s leadership had retaliated against her for filing the complaint.
The employee said that after inspectors came to the facility, her boss assigned several new duties outside of her role, records show.
“My job looks nothing like that I was hired for,” she said in an email to an inspector, adding later, “I feel like I’m being set up to fail based on performance.”
The employee forwarded the inspector an email chain in which O’Farrell, the director, asked the employee to begin reporting data related to a grant. The employee said this was outside her normal duties and noted that the email came within “one day from (inspectors’) visit,” records show.
“We strongly disagree that the employee was subject to retaliation,” O’Farrell said, declining to comment further.
State inspectors ultimately handed Northeast Kingdom Community Action two citations for five violations.
Those included two “serious” violations: one for not informing employees about the presence and location of asbestos-containing materials, and a second for allowing the employee to sweep damaged tiles without knowledge that they contained asbestos.
Other, more minor violations were for trip hazards, an unsecured electrical outlet on a wall and chained extension cords, which inspectors said could expose employees to electric shocks.
Lippy, the safety researcher, said he believes the chained electrical cords posed a greater immediate risk than the asbestos-containing tiles.
“Right off the bat, you have a tripping hazard,” he said, “but it does increase the risk of fire.”
The state told the nonprofit it needed to permanently abate the problem areas by Aug. 31. Vintinner, with the state Department of Labor, said the agency received confirmation on Aug. 26 that Northeast Kingdom Community Action had completely abated the impacted area.
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