Tight construction schedule brings safety

by Melanie Evans

University employees in the Mayo Memorial Building returned to work this week without the deafening noise and clouds of dust that intermittently filled the hallways through the past month.
Racing against a tight time line to complete construction in the Medical School complex, the radical transformation of the sixth floor of Mayo was completed this week to house displaced staff from Owre Hall, Millard Hall and Lyon Laboratories. The process — involving multiple construction crews and contractors — threatened employee health and safety, staff argue.
All staff on the floor, except the students, were granted a paid leave of absence in response to a union grievance for the last three days of construction. Because they have no set schedule and are paid by the hour, student employees had to choose between working in conditions their peers found unfit, or not get paid.
“There’s an awful lot of pressure to get projects done right now,” said Roger Jeremiah, asbestos program manager for the Department of Environmental Health and Safety.
“We have a period of a couple of years where people’s comfort levels are going to be stretched, but their safety is not in jeopardy,” he said.
But University employees argue it’s not comfort they are concerned with. Wary of the dust clouds and fumes generated by construction crews during office hours, staff in the Mayo Building approached the Minnesota Department of Health, Minnesota Occupation Safety and Health Act compliance office, and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
Long waiting lists or lack of jurisdiction kept the state agencies from responding. Finally, the staff filed a grievance with the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
The union asked the Academic Health Center to halt construction, or move the employees, according to the grievance.
In the spirit of the union agreement, University officials granted paid leave to all faculty and staff on the sixth floor. However, because their workload and schedules fluctuate from day to day, students weren’t included in the agreement. A handful of students who were led to believe they qualified for the deal will receive back pay.
Glue, paint and dust from tearing down walls and ceilings left University employee Maria Sokec nauseous and short of breath, she said.
The University’s slow response and state health agencies’ inability to intervene frustrated the principal secretary and undergraduate education coordinator for the adult psychiatry division.
“This is about protection and respect,” she said. Poor communication and sloppy work by construction crews denied staff of both, she said.
However, air testing found no traces of asbestos or toxic materials in the air following construction.
“There have been concerns expressed by all levels of the Department of Psychiatry over the response time” from University offices, said Michael P. Nemcek, assistant to the head of the Department of Psychiatry.
Calls to Facilities Management produced tardy results as crews would respond 24 hours after a complaint.
“Given the amount and level of construction on campus over the next two years, we would hope the appropriate office would develop acceptable education and response standards,” Nemcek said.
The University has a responsibility to provide a safe working environment for its employees, said Bruce Iverson, business representative for AFSCME Council 6. Facilities management should be keeping a closer eye on independent contractors. Employees are unaware of what is safe or unsafe.
Inspectors from Facilities Management, architects, engineers, University building code officials and the Office of Environmental Health and Safety oversee work performed by electricians, plumbers or construction crews on campus, said Roger Wegner, a Facilities Management University representative.
Following the grievance, the University agreed to perform further air quality testing and inspections to ensure independent contractors are following guidelines, Iverson said.