Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Hollywood is under investigation for possible violations of laws on asbestos removal and disposal, according to officials from the county Department of Health Services and state division of Occupational Safety and Health.
County officials last week barred Kaiser from continuing its remodeling of a building that includes its administrative offices at 1515 N. Vermont Ave. until the hospital cleans up the site and demonstrates that there is no danger to public health, said Peter Torres, a county environmental health officer.
Responding to complaints from Kaiser employees, county officials visited the site and "determined that it was likely there was asbestos in the material they were removing and putting into a dumpster," Torres said.
Asbestos was widely used as a fire retardant until it was discovered that inhaling the fibrous material can cause a deadly lung disease called asbestosis.
The asbestos removal began Dec. 9 and continued sporadically for eight days until it was halted last week, Kaiser officials said.
According to a Kaiser employee who was working at the site, construction supervisors ordered employees to remove asbestos insulation from a utility shaft running through the building. No protective equipment was used and the material was disposed of with other conventional refuse in violation of hazardous waste laws, said the employee, who asked that his name not be used because he feared for his job.
Larry Roberts, who is the assistant director of utilities, engineering and construction for Kaiser in Southern California, acknowledged that asbestos was improperly removed and disposed of.
"Under the contractor's license law any general contractor can remove up to 100 square feet of surface area of asbestos material without a specialty license," Roberts said. But a foreman "interpreted that to mean that he could remove up to 100 square feet" without following guidelines for worker safety and the disposal of hazardous material, he said.
Roberts said he discovered the error on Monday and ordered an immediate halt to the work.
Hospital spokeswoman Janice Seib said Kaiser will monitor the health of the three workers who were removing the asbestos.
Based on an investigation of the filters in the building's air ventilation system, Seib said "we are confident" that the other workers employed throughout the building "are not at risk."
The Kaiser employee said the asbestos insulation was chipped off steel beams, "falling off to the floor where I and others were working."
"It fell off the beams 13 or 14 feet and the dust would come off it," he said. "All of us have had our lives endangered because we were breathing this stuff for months." Torres said tests taken last week show that the material removed contained asbestos. Results of air samples taken throughout the building show that airborne asbestos levels were below the federal Environmental Protection Agency limit of .010 parts per million per cubic centimeter, he said. The remodeling is being done on the second through seventh floors. The first floor is a bank and the eighth floor is occupied by a dermatology clinic.
However, Torres said it is impossible for the county to determine how much asbestos may have been in the air before last week.
Torres also said several dumpsters at the site have been sealed. If tests show that the material in the dumpsters contains asbestos, it will have to be packaged in non-recyclable containers, labeled as containing hazardous waste and trucked by a licensed hauler to a hazardous waste dump.
He said Cal/OSHA, the state agency responsible for ensuring worker safety, will decide whether Kaiser violated worker safety laws, while the county will determine whether the hospital violated hazardous waste disposal laws.
Cal/OSHA officials declined to comment and directed inquiries to their press office, where Judith Singer said she could not reach any of the investigators involved.