YONKERS, NY — February 17, 2014 — Yonkers Department of Public Works (DPW) workers were engaged in conducting minor renovations at Fire Station 12, located at 75 Fortfield Avenue, starting in the late spring, May 2013. In addition to scraping and painting of walls, they also removed floor tiles from one of the floors. They did not test for the presence of asbestos prior to doing the work (as they should have – standard procedure). No protective measures were undertaken to safeguard the workers; a responsibility demanded of DPW’s Joe Celli. The Firefighters were never advised to avoid the area or to take precautions. The firefighters continued to sleep in the dormitories, utilize the bathroom for personal hygiene and exercise in the gym. Approximately six weeks after the work began, Yonkers Firefighters Local 628 became aware that asbestos may be present in the floor tiles and debris left in their quarters and that asbestos may have become airborne during the renovations.
“It is untenable that the City placed its employees at risk. Asbestos is a well known health hazard, so much so, OSHA advises there is ‘no safe level’,” asserted Barry McGoey (pictured), president of Yonkers Firefighters Local 628.
Several weeks after the work commenced, one of the DPW workers advised a Firefighter that no one should be using the rooms because asbestos debris was still present.
“Not only were our firefighters and the DPW workers who removed the tiles put at risk, the City placed our families and the public at risk,” McGoey continued. “The Center for Disease Control (CDC) cautions that asbestos can be carried out into the public and into our homes on our clothing, bodies and items we may carry, and that exactly this sort of asbestos transport has resulted in documented cases of asbestos disease and death.”
Upon learning of this, I.A.F.F. – Local 628 obtained samples of the materials and sent them to a lab for testing. The results came back positive for the presence of asbestos at unsafe levels. Local 628 provided the test results to the City of Yonkers (CoY) and City Hall conducted their own testing which corroborated Local 628’s findings; the test undertaken on behalf of CoY also came back as positive, unsafe, and at high levels. The rooms were sealed off with duct tape and a warning sign which read, “Do Not Enter!”
After several weeks of no action, Local 628 filed a complaint with the New York State Public Employees Safety and Health Division (NYS PESH), a division of the NYS Department of Labor. Nothing happened for several weeks.
Approximately 5 or 6 weeks after Local 628’s complaint to PESH the CoY installed a double layer of plastic from floor to ceiling outside the affected areas and sealed the area so that it was less likely to contaminate beyond the area cordoned. The next day, a PESH inspector arrived for his "unannounced" site visit and investigation. The PESH inspector did not enter the affected rooms, and instead monitored the air outside the sealed off room for the presence of airborne asbestos. The Department of Labor inspection found that asbestos levels outside of the cordoned area were within permissible exposure levels (PELs) but never inspected the area behind the plastic sheeting where the renovations took place and where debris was left behind. PESH did cite CoY for failing to maintain injury logs for the prior years, but did not cite CoY for violations of the PESH Act.
The failure by NYS to conduct an adequate and necessary inspection further compounded the health risks for the firefighters, their families and the public. “The NYS Department of Labor failed in its responsibilities and it adds insult to injury that they only issued a ‘nonserious’ violation to the City of Yonkers,” explained Richard Corenthal, of the firm Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein, P.C., legal counsel for Yonkers Local 628. “Not only are we seeking full and proper inspection, remediation, and compliance with the law, we are very concerned that this failure by the State will only encourage the City to circumvent proper employee protections in the future.”
Local 628 had a conference meeting with the CoY and PESH to review their findings. Local 628 objected to the delay in the investigation process, specifically with respect to PESH giving CoY prior notice of the investigator's site visit, and for failing to cite CoY for violations of PESH and OSHA regulations.
Local 628 has filed an appeal with the NYS Industrial Relations Board.
Local 628 has had to hire their own Industrial Hygienist to assist them with their complaint and appeal.
Upon learning of the potential presence of asbestos, Local 628 immediately notified the City Fire Department that its members may have been exposed to asbestos for more than six weeks. The Fire Department responded by closing the door to the renovated area, applying duct tape and placing a do not enter sign. The City only tested for the presence of asbestos after the Firefighters independently secured testing for a sample of the questioned materials. Both analyses confirmed the presence of asbestos.
PESH was besides itself when they came to recognize Local 628 was committed to following up on their complaint. PESH denied violating the PESH Act by giving CoY advance notice of their site visits; even so, it is obvious they did just that. Heretofore, CoY did nothing for over 3 months time, and then all of a sudden, the day before PESH arrived, they sealed the room off properly.
Recognizing Local 628 was not recoiling for their complaint, PESH officials advised they were still investigating the exposures to the DPW workers who removed the asbestos and that they would most likely issue serious violations against CoY as a result of that investigation.
New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo and Yonkers Deputy Mayor Sue Gerry seem to have their fingerprints over this issue by the timeline to which PESH adhered. The probability of their interference vis-à-vis their Albany network to scuttle this investigation is plausible. PESH should be a vehicle to protect public sector workers, not a tool for politicians to use for their own benefit. …And so the stomach turns.