PATERSON, NJ - The day after health inspectors advised the city to stop office renovations because of the discovery of hazardous asbestos, municipal officials ordered public works department employees back inside to clean up the area, union officials said on Monday.
Prior to the shutdown, the employees had been working amid the asbestos for almost two months, even though they had no training for handling the toxic substance, the union leaders said.
“They put people’s lives in danger,’’ said James Parker, president of American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, Local 2272. “We pulled them out and the director sent them back in.’’ Parker said Public Works Director Christopher Coke threatened the employees with insubordination charges if they did not go back into the shut-down location on the second floor of 133 Ellison Street.
Another official with the union, Michael Jackson, said the city failed to provide the workers with protective suits and gave them substandard masks. Jackson also said Coke used fans to air out the work area where the asbestos tiles were being removed from the floor before he went ahead conducted tests to check for the toxic substance.
Three departments of state government are investigating the situation. Also, Passaic County Sheriff Richard Berdnik is conducting his own inquiry because his office says it was never told asbestos was involved when he supplied the city with inmates from a community service work crew who were assigned to the office renovation project.
When asked about the union leaders’ assertions, Coke said, “As much as I would like to comment, I’ve been advised by the legal department not to comment because the investigation is still going on.’’
Paterson Business Administrator Charles Thomas said Paterson’s legal department was researching the case. Thomas said he had not seen a formal grievance filed by the labor union and declined to respond to comments made by union leaders until after he had read the grievance. Thomas said the city wanted to make sure that in the future all renovation projects were done in compliance with state law regarding asbestos. He also said the city planned to hire a firm with expertise in dealing with the hazardous materials to complete the work at the offices.
Jackson, the head of the union’s grievance committee, said seven employees worked on the renovations at the site. Workers initially raised questions about the asbestos in October, Jackson said. Officials told them not to worry, that there was no danger, he said.
Officials have said the type of asbestos at the site would only become a problem if the tiles were broken apart and the asbestos fibers became airborne. Jackson said that’s exactly what was going on at 133 Ellison.
The workers were using scrapers to chip the tiles off the floor, said Jackson. He asserted that the proper way to remove such tile is applying heat so that they slide off the floor. “None of these guys had ever been trained in how to deal with asbestos,’’ said Jackson. “They should have never been there.’’
City health inspectors went to the site after the city’s affirmative action officer, whose office was in between the two rooms where the work was going on, questioned whether the situation posed any danger, said Jackson.
The health department ordered the renovations to stop on December 12, Jackson said. But Coke directed the workers to return to the two rooms on December 13 to clean up the area and to install fans, Jackson said.
Jackson said the director did not want the air tests done until the asbestos could be blown from the area.
Coke has said that 15 air samples and five tests of dust taken from the location all came back negative. The tiles themselves, Coke has said, showed low levels of asbestos.
The workers were doing renovations to create a new office for Paterson’s Community Development Director Lanisha Makle, according to the union leaders.