U of T hit with health and safety grievance over asbestos leak

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The union representing teaching assistants and contract faculty at the University of Toronto alleges the school violated the Occupational Health and Safety Act and compromised the well-being of its employees by having them continue to work following three documented asbestos leaks in the Medical Sciences Building.

CUPE local 3902 filed grievances against the university Thursday connected to five labs that tested positive for asbestos fibres when dust-samples were taken in February and March.

Two labs remain sealed off, Scott Mabury, the university's vice-president of operations, told CBC Toronto, but the others have been cleared after the sources of the leaks were sealed.

Asbestos has been banned in more than 50 countries — and Canada is set to do the same for new construction and renovations as of 2018. It was, however, used routinely as both insulation and fireproofing until it was connected to mesothelioma, a lung cancer with a median survival rate of between 12 and 21 months after diagnosis.

The material only poses a health risk, however, if it's been disturbed. There are many older homes and buildings across the country in which it's safely sealed. 

'Fear is the prevailing sentiment'

The leaks were triggered, however, by construction that ran from November until January, a process meant to remove asbestos from seven locations inside the St. George Campus building. The majority of employees in the building only learned of the first asbestos leak about five weeks after it was discovered, something the union alleges violates their contract with the university.

"I think fear is the prevailing sentiment right now as people are just trying to get a handle on the situation and figure out if they've been exposed," the union local's chair Ryan Culpepper said Thursday. "But also I think there's bafflement about why there was so little communication about this." 

Those who worked in the affected labs, however, were immediately told about the findings of asbestos, Mabury said, and the labs were closed. He acknowledged that "in retrospect" the university should have informed more of the students and employees in the building about the findings.

"Certainly, at the first incident we fully expected that to be isolated," he said. "I think we've learned good lessons that will apply elsewhere from there."

The University of Toronto has since conducted 350 air tests in the Medical Sciences Building, none of which came back positive, Mabury said. All of those results are available on the university's website, a move Mabury said he hoped would help ease the minds of students and faculty. 

None of the building's classrooms or common areas ever tested positive for asbestos, he added. 

Union calls for independent audit

Local 3902, however, is calling on the school to seal off the entire floors of all the labs that have been affected by asbestos dust. Culpepper said the employees want to see an independent review done before any construction continues to ensure there are no other breaches. 

The university is in the middle of a $190-million renovation of laboratories at its three campuses. And Mabury said it's already fired the contractor that oversaw the renovations in the Medical Sciences Building to send a message that "we have no tolerance for mistakes" — and does not see a reason to stop construction. 

He said that the school had already done rigorous air quality testing in the building and been cleared on three separate visits by the provincial Ministry of Labour. 

"Those air samples are telling us that the building is safe," he said. "It's the same safe building it's been last year and through the life of that building."

A handful of contract employees have filed notice through CUPE, exercising their right under the Labour Act to refuse to work in unsafe conditions.