ASU workers last year accused the university of more than 20 workplace hazards that violated safety regulations. But the state agency responsible for investigating such allegations usually directed Arizona State University to inspect itself.
And ASU officials rarely found problems on their campus, a Tribune review of complaints shows.
The one time that the Arizona Department of Occupational Safety and Health conducted an unannounced inspection, it found a university building supervisor had sent his employees to tear down a roof loaded with asbestos.
The agency initially cited ASU for a “serious” violation. But college officials negotiated that down to “non-serious” as part of a settlement deal last month.
Before the asbestos case, the agency had declined to investigate allegations that ASU put employees at risk of exposure to mold and electrical currents and that it had leveled scaffolding using phone books and didn’t provide equipment to protect against falls.
The university’s health and safety office denied most of the 22 individual allegations made throughout 2007, complaint records and internal e-mail records show. However, ASU officials told the state agency they couldn’t confirm or deny some of the most serious alleged hazards.
Leon Igras, the university’s health and safety director, declined to comment for this story. Robert Backus, head of ASU’s carpentry shop, also declined to comment specifically on the asbestos case, in which he was involved.
In October, state inspectors found Backus had told his employees the Lyceum Theater’s porch roof he’d assigned them to remove had tested negative for asbestos. In fact, he never had it tested.
“In the process of tearing off the roof, a big cloud of dust was created that caused coughing and watering of the eyes,” the employee complaint said.
The employees stopped work after just three hours, worried that the 69-year-old theater did contain the carcinogen. Asbestos only poses a serious risk if it becomes airborne.
“The roof had seven layers of felt paper that tested positive for asbestos,” the complaint said.
After the state agency cited it for a serious violation, the university established a more rigorous building permit system and added training for construction supervisors to prevent future hazards, Leah Hardesty, an ASU spokeswoman, wrote in response to the Tribune’s questions.
When complaints “are serious in nature or could possibly result in serious harm or even someone’s death, then we’re going to put a lot more weight on those,” said Darin Perkins, Arizona’s occupational safety and health director.
If state regulators didn’t inspect certain alleged hazards at the university, Perkins said it is likely because the complaint didn’t meet all the state agency’s criteria. Those criteria are that the complaint detail a situation that could cause serious injury, that it be filed in writing and that at least one current employee sign their name on it.
The state agency commonly directs employers to handle minor complaints that don’t include a significant health risk, Perkins said. The agency is sometimes notified when an office’s carpet isn’t flat, for instance.
Employers typically provide the agency accurate information about such “nonserious” allegations because they risk criminal prosecution if they don’t, said John Alan Doran, a Phoenix labor law attorney with Greenberg Traurig.
“Why would anybody lie about something that’s of relatively little consequence in the big scheme of things?” Doran said.
Records do not indicate if any of the allegations against ASU, besides the asbestos, were minor by state standards. Nor do they say what factors caused regulators to decline to investigate.
In March, a complaint said workers repairing the Tempe campus’ Matthews Center, a two-story building, kept scaffolding level by placing phone books and bricks underneath the structure’s legs. That could destabilize the scaffolding and violates state and federal regulations.
An ASU safety official checked the construction site the day after receiving the complaint, but the scaffolding had already been disassembled.
Perkins said construction workers often level scaffolds with pieces of wood, considered a “nonserious” violation.
However, he added, “you’re not normally going to find a phone book used to level a scaffold.”
Less than a month later, the state agency asked the university to investigate another potential fall risk. That complaint accused ASU construction supervisors of directing employees to work at elevated heights without fall-protection measures.
Igras told the agency in an April 4 letter his office’s internal review was inconclusive.
“While no hazard was observed,” Igras wrote, “the potential for employees to work at elevations in excess of six feet without guard rails and fall arrest systems was identified.”
Falls are the second most common cause of Arizona workplace deaths, according to agency statistics.
That same complaint also said ASU building supervisors exposed workers to mold growing on water damaged ceilings. Igras’ letter said there was no evidence supporting that claim.
But even if there was evidence of mold, Perkins said the agency wouldn’t have inspected the tiles.
Mold can cause health problems, but the agency doesn’t cite employers for it because there are no laws regarding mold growth, he said. “There’re no federal standards, no state standards, there’s nothing out there that says, ‘If you have this much mold, you’re in violation,’” he said.
ASU’s single violation last year, for the asbestos, cost the university $750. It negotiated the agency’s fine down from $1,000 as part of a settlement that lowered the charge to “nonserious” and closed the case.
While the $250 saved is inconsequential to the nation’s largest university, Doran said it is important to employers to downgrade “serious” violations.
If the state cites the university again, a serious violation can prompt inspectors to charge ASU with “repeat,” or even “willful” violations.
Those citations bring much larger fines and can damage an employer’s reputation. The agency is often willing to lower the violation to close cases without costly court battles, Doran said.
“It’s really just part of the day to day administrative horse trading that gets these resolved without going to a hearing,” he said.