U mightcertify asbestos workers

by Jessica Steeno

Though more than 3,000 different commercially available products have asbestos in them, administrators at the University’s Twin Cities campus are most concerned with the large number of ceiling tiles containing the mineral.
University buildings contain about 240,000 square feet of ceiling tiles; workers in the school’s Facilities Management department move many of them every day to change light bulbs and repair ventilation systems.
Disturbing the tiles can pose a health risk because asbestos can cause cancer if particles of the mineral become airborne. For years, the substance has been governed by strict safety laws, but the Minnesota Department of Health last year released revised regulations for handling asbestos.
The revised rules might mean that Facilities Management and other building owners will have to employ a certified asbestos worker each time a ceiling tile containing asbestos is moved.
The workers who perform those operations are not currently certified by the state. In order to abide by the regulations, some of the 300 Facilities Management employees would have to complete certification classes to classify them as asbestos workers.
Since last summer, when the regulations were revised, Facilities Management supervisors have asked the state to reconsider their interpretation of the ordinance and argue that moving the tiles does not constitute asbestos-related work.
The managers also said workers who currently handle the ceiling tiles are trained to work with the material correctly and that the state’s interpretation of the law is too rigid.
“I think that their interpretation is more than it really says in the regulation,” said Facilities Management Asbestos Coordinator Tim Nelson. “As (an asbestos) regulator I might be thinking that if I had someone who had 40 hours of training, then it would be safe. But that would be in a perfect world.”
Tom Hogan, an industrial hygienist with the Minnesota Department of Health, said the way the University currently operates seems to be safe.
“It sounds as if they have people that have training in the area, and it’s just a matter of them getting certified,” Hogan said. “Not to say that that isn’t a burden, but based on our analysis, that’s asbestos-related work.”
For a worker or supervisor to be certified, they must complete a four- to five-day training course that costs between $450 and $600, and must have between 1,000 and 2,000 hours of construction-related work experience. After the training course is completed, the employer must pay a fee of up to $100 and submit an application for the worker to become certified.
The University already has a team of 10 certified asbestos workers and five certified administrators, but Nelson said administrators in Facilities Management do not use them to do routine work like changing light bulbs.
Because not all of the employees in Nelson’s department can be certified, he said he will run into constant scheduling problems. He said making sure that there is always a certified asbestos employee scheduled to do routine maintenance is a hassle.
“We’d have to schedule maintenance around when a certified worker would be able to do it,” he said.
The health department enforces its regulations by responding to complaints from workers or people who observe the asbestos work being performed. Hogan said that the penalties for incorrect procedures begin with a letter of warning and can build to a fine of $10,000. He said that the University, although it is not currently complying with state regulations, would probably not get reprimanded.
“We’re just trying to bring people up to speed on it because we became aware that people were not doing it correctly,” he said.