More than a year after several asbestos breaches at the University of Toronto’s medical-sciences building, some faculty, staff and students still have health and safety concerns about exposures to the known carcinogen.
The university’s faculty association has forceful criticism of how the administration has handled the situation, saying that people are still not being properly informed about asbestos abatement work or what went wrong related to last year’s breaches. These safety concerns aren’t just at the medical building, it says, but at all three campuses.
U of T — like most universities in Canada — is grappling with the legacy of asbestos-containing materials in buildings that are now aging and requiring renovation work. This can entail abatement work, which can increase exposure risks. The situation at Canada’s largest university stands out, however, for its handling of a key health and safety issue, experts say.
U of T is “the poster child for the things that can go wrong” if people don’t receive clear enough information to help them feel safe at work, said Laura Lozanski, occupational health and safety officer for the Canadian Association of University Teachers.
Our members have lost trust and don’t know if they’re safe.— Terezia Zoric, U of T Faculty Association
Though this is a challenge across Canadian campuses, U of T “has stood out recently because of a lack of, and apparently continuing, appropriate consultation with the joint health and safety committee and the unions, and effective communication with everyone on campus regarding the issue.”
The university experienced its worst asbestos breach in more than a decade early last year at its medical-sciences building. Since then, another incident occurred in July when a worker transported two wheelbarrows with asbestos-containing materials in a basement corridor, which contravened proper procedure (the university issued a notice about this on Aug. 1). In October, a hot-water pipe burst in the building, causing flooding. Starbucks and a cafeteria were temporarily closed due to risk of asbestos contamination.
Adria Giacca, a professor of physiology whose office tested positive for asbestos last March, is among those who are worried. “We don’t feel safe. Personally, I don’t feel safe,” she said. Communication has improved from a year ago, she says, though ongoing renovation mishaps in her building mean people “have lost confidence in management.”
All forms of asbestos cause cancer in humans and even low levels of exposure increase cancer risks, according to the World Health Organization. The latency period for mesothelioma, an asbestos-related cancer, is long, typically ranging from 20 to 40 years.
Asbestos, once widely used in materials across Canada, will be banned this year. It is the top source of workplace deaths in the country, according to data from the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada.
Both the faculty association and CUPE 3902, which represents contract academic employees, currently have asbestos-related grievances filed against the university.
Though there is a login to a website that details where asbestos is, not everyone — such as cleaners, cafeteria workers or visitors — has access to it, said Jess Taylor, internal liaison officer at CUPE 3902. As well, asbestos signage should be more prominent, and accountability stronger, she says. “There hasn’t been a recognition that when the asbestos exposures happened [last year], it wasn’t just a communication problem. There was a problem in decision-making and management.”
Lessons were learned from last year’s incidents, said Scott Mabury, the university’s vice-president of operations.
Since then, the university has increased oversight of projects through more site inspections, boosted communication on construction projects, increased air sampling and created a review panel to examine its asbestos policies, the results of which will be made public. “We’re committed to being as transparent as absolutely possible,” he said.
The faculty association says it believes this panel is not sufficiently impartial, nor at arm’s length, and that it and other groups were not involved enough in its creation or in establishing its terms of reference. The faculty association, along with CUPE and the United Steelworkers, all issued open letters to the university in the fall, expressing a series of concerns about the review panel, concerns they feel are still not being heard.
Across all three campuses, “we continue to have members report to us on a weekly basis, of concerns,” related to asbestos, said Terezia Zoric, vice-president of grievances for U of T’s faculty association. “This is not just a dead issue.
“Our members have lost trust and don’t know if they’re safe.”
It hired an independent consultant to investigate the university’s asbestos management. A February report by ECOH Management Inc., an environment and safety consulting firm, found “systemic problems” in asbestos exposure control. “In our opinion, U of T has not adopted best practices in asbestos management and abatement,” it said.
Students are worried, too. A spokesperson for the Association of Part-Time Undergraduate Students said that it was an ongoing issue for students and they would like to see more clarity from the administration about where exactly asbestos is and isn’t.
Renovations under way are partly due to a $193-million project to modernize U of T’s labs, funded by the federal and provincial governments along with the university, for which the deadline for completion is at the end of this month.