The gloom that has shrouded much of the downtown county courthouse for several months will be lifting soon, now that state officials have relaxed regulations that previously prohibited replacing burned-out light bulbs.
Late last year, the state Occupational Health and Safety Administration slapped a "yellow tag" citation on the aging courthouse after an investigation found that asbestos had been flaking from the ceilings of two courtrooms.
The citation prohibited any work that might dislodge more asbestos, which can cause cancer if inhaled in dust form. Specifically, workers were forbidden from entering the crawl spaces above the ceiling panels.
This created a problem for court officials: Light bulbs were burning out in courtrooms and judges' chambers, but replacing them required access to the crawl spaces, which were off limits according to Cal-OSHA.
'Eye Strain Awful'
"It got terrible in here," said Sylvia Kirchman, a clerk in Superior Court Department 15, where the lighting had grown decidedly dim by last week. "I had splitting headaches every day. The eye strain was awful."
One municipal judge brought in two lamps to enhance the lighting in his courtroom, and jokes about flashlights and candles ran rampant through the courthouse.
But it was no laughing matter to court administrators. And last month, county officials requested that Cal-OSHA modify the restrictions.
The agency recently agreed, to a point, specifying that any work in the asbestos-infested areas must be performed after hours by trained employees wearing protective gear. In addition, air monitoring must be performed after any disturbance to guarantee that the environment is safe for courthouse employees and the public.
Over the weekend, workers replaced the bulbs in Superior Court Departments 15 and 5, and plans are afoot to reilluminate seven other courtrooms. Similar work will be performed in two municipal courtrooms.
"It sounds stupid but it's a very important part of courthouse operations," Municipal Court Administrator Kent Pedersen said Tuesday. "This is a big relief."
Despite the good news, the larger problem of how to deal with the asbestos that lurks throughout the 663,000-square-foot courthouse remains unsolved. County supervisors in January agreed to fund a $100,000 survey to determine how much of the material was used to prevent steel structural beams from melting in a fire.
But that process could take as long as three months, and if removal, repair or encasing of any asbestos is warranted, resolution of the problem would take still longer.
Meanwhile, clerks, bailiffs and others who work in the courthouse have formed a committee to focus attention on the issue.
"It's stressful," said Kirchman, who arrived at work Monday morning to find her courtroom sealed while workers tested the air quality for potential asbestos contamination. "They tell us the asbestos is not a concern. But I'm concerned."