(Canadian OH&S News) — The University of Toronto (U of T) has been hit with health and safety grievances from the union representing its teaching assistants and contract faculty, following a trio of recent asbestos leaks in the main campus’ Medical Sciences Building.
The leaks resulted from renovation work in the building, part of a large, campus-wide rehabilitation project funded in part by the federal and Ontario governments, according to Scott Mabury, U of T’s vice president of university operations. Part of this project involves getting rid of all asbestos, he explained.
“The University of Toronto has a policy,” said Mabury, “that whenever we’re doing a significant renovation in any space, we remove asbestos.” The removal is not mandatory, he added, but the university’s choice.
The first leak occurred on Feb. 1, with the second on Feb. 24; these incidents affected four rooms in the research tower of the Medical Sciences Building. “I stress ‘four’ because we have 1,900 rooms in that building, to give you an idea of the scale,” said Mabury.
The third incident involved the discovery of a 50-year-old wall sealer, 0.5 per cent of which contained asbestos fibres, in another room of the research tower. “None of us had ever seen this before, and our outside consultants hadn’t seen it before,” Mabury said.
Local 3902 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) has claimed in its grievances that the university risked the health of its employees by allowing them to work in the building during the leaks. The majority of the building’s workers were unaware of the first asbestos leak for about five weeks after its discovery, according to media reports.
While CUPE Local 3902 did not respond to COHSN’s request for comment, Mabury conceded that there had been insufficient communication to employees following the first leak.
“In retrospect, it would have been better if we had more broadly communicated the first incident,” he said. “But one has to balance that kind of communication with the desire not to unnecessarily raise concern and alarm.”
But the university did inform the joint health and safety committee of the leaks and take other required actions, such as frequent air-quality tests. As of April 17, U of T had conducted 491 air samples outside of the containment zones of the building since autumn, Mabury indicated.
“We’ve had outside experts come in and assess all the evidence, both our procedures and actions, as well as all the data,” he said. “We believe that the building is as safe now as it was when it was built.”
In addition, the asbestos contractor whose breaches caused the first two leaks is no longer working in the Medical Sciences Building.
“That contractor had worked on campus for many, many years, very successfully, but that led us to not have them work in the building any further,” said Mabury.
Following the CUPE grievances, the university has put additional procedures and oversight in place and made efforts to communicate with workers and other stakeholders more effectively, such as in online updates.
“We will more extensively communicate if this ever happens again,” said Mabury. “We’ve learned from the experience here and applied this learning not only in this building, but throughout the tri-campus University of Toronto experience.”
EDIT: The affected lab rooms in the building have recently reopened, according to an announcement on the U of T website.