University responds to claims that library is unsafe
April 22, 2009 8:36 PM
California's work safety watchdog sent a letter to SF State last week requiring the university to investigate a complaint over conditions in the J. Paul Leonard library, according to a copy of the letter.
The letter from the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration asked the university to investigate claims that the library, which is closed for renovations, is unsafe for the 22 workers who retrieve the books still stored within.
CLICK HERE to see the Cal/OSHA Letter
The letter carried no immediate penalty but required that SF State conduct a prompt investigation and notify Cal/OSHA of its findings.
Yet despite SF State's in-house Office of Safety and Risk Management's finding of only minor problems with the work site, many employees said that the environment was not up to their personal standards and that they had no clue how to respond to an emergency while in the building.
CLICK HERE to see the University's Response.
"The library is basically a death trap," said Joseph Jelincic, an SF State Service Employees International Union representative for two of the 22 employees, "from our initial walk through, we could only find one way in and one way out."
A Pandora's Box
Touring the library to investigate an employee's concern over air quality, Jelincic, who has received training to identify workplace hazards, said he was shocked by what he saw. Stairways and hallways were poorly lit, and the bathrooms had no running water.
Cal/OSHA requires all workplaces have at least two exits, part of a larger group of standards in the California Code of Regulations.
Jelincic said he reported the problems to SF State earlier this month but received an unsatisfactory level of response from risk management and chose to notify OSHA.
"When there's a complaint like this, there shouldn't be any hesitation in looking into it," he said.
Closed since November of 2008, the 1950s-era library is undertaking "a major expansion, seismic strengthening and renovation," according to the project's Web site, including the addition of a robotized system for storing and retrieving books.
Until the expected completion of the project in 2011, workers respond to requests online and retrieve the books stored in the library within 24 hours.
Twenty of the workers who retrieve books in the library are non-unionized students, according to Jelincic. The remaining two are unionized library staff, whose ranks are divided between the main building and the other locations set up to provide library services.
Risk management completed its investigation by the five-day deadline set by Cal/OSHA and began installing additional lighting even before the study was available for viewing, according to library employees.
The 99-page reply to OSHA from risk management contained several documents, including a summarized response to the initial complaint and the specific measurement of asbestos levels throughout the building.
"I'm pleased to say that there were only minor findings that are easily corrected," wrote Michael Martin, executive director of risk management, in an email to the [X]press.
The report described the opening of another exit, adding lighting to some areas, conducting a fire drill and assigning workers to an Administration building bathroom.
The reply also included signed forms from each library employee stating they understand the "Basic Safety Rules for Construction" handbook and that any concerns should be brought to a supervisor.
Yet when asked where the nearest first-aid kit was, two-year library employee and student Serena Maris said she didn't know.
"I'd probably go in my purse for a Band-Aid," she said.
Gayle Orr-Smith, emergency preparedness coordinator, said advanced knowledge of what to do in an emergency can save lives.
"It's absolutely important," she said, "Once you have this information, it's amazing how it can affect your behavior."
No better option
While keeping the university's books within an active construction zone complicates their retrieval, the head of SF State's library, Deborah Masters, said it was the best option.
"There wasn't any other place to put them," she said.
Since a strongly-fortified building is needed to handle the heavy books, the only other option would be to store them in a remote warehouse that would further delay the time between request and delivery, she said.
In consideration of the additional dangers of active construction, Masters, OSHA, risk management and others held a meeting before book retrieval began last year to determine the best way to protect the staff within the library. In addition to other rules, workers must wear a hardhat and safety vest while passing through the actual construction zone.
Yet despite the early planning, Jelincic said the administration of the library environment has become lax.
"I think the university had some good intentions, but I think they fell apart," he said, "Having a plan on paper is different then having a safe practice."
Workers said they didn't feel like they were in any immediate danger while in the library, but the environment could be uncomfortable.
"In certain areas, the lights are off," said Nguyen, who added that the natural light was not enough to see easily, "We just have to make due with what we have."
With the surrounding construction, including welding, Jelincic said the risk of fire or building damage is substantially higher. In a panic, a seemingly obvious route to safety can be complicated by things like poor lighting and debris.
"Library materials are flammable--it's old paper," he said.
While risk management has addressed the complaints, Cal/OSHA wrote in their letter that every fifth satisfactory response they receive "is subject to verification by an inspection."
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