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Asbestos Removal Lacked Safeguards, Workers Claim

Members of Housing Authority crew say they removed hazardous tiles without use of protective gear. Official admits 'disconnect' in projects.

June 23, 2004|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Housing Authority workers said that until earlier this month, they for years had routinely removed asbestos-laden tiles without wearing respirators and while tenants were still in their apartments.

After Cal/OSHA officials launched an investigation that was triggered by worker complaints, Housing Authority officials agreed in a June 7 internal memo to contract with asbestos experts to remove tiles and linoleum "due to the possibility of asbestos-containing materials."

A group of Housing Authority employees said they complained to agency management for five years that they lacked the proper protective gear to remove tiles and other flooring from hundreds of old apartments operated by the city authority.

Workers said they routinely removed tiles that contained asbestos and scraped off adhesive that contained friable asbestos with tenants still in the apartments.

"I tore up tiles while there were babies in the room," said Louis Torres, an agency worker for 11 years. "The baby was coughing, and I was coughing. They wouldn't even give me a dust mask."

Torres said he and the other three members of a tile-replacement crew were reassigned June 14, but he continues to have concerns about their health.

Torres said four other workers who once removed tiles have retired, and the same number of employees have also periodically been involved in tile removal.

The workers are worried that their exposure to asbestos might cause them to get cancer.

Housing Authority officials now acknowledge that tiles and adhesive removed by the agency crews appeared to contain asbestos. And, although they downplayed the risk to employees and tenants, they said that they would now use private specialists for tile removal jobs.

"Our staff is under the impression that these are not hazardous levels, but, to be safe, we are going to have contractors come in from now on and remove the tiles," said Elenore A. Williams, chairwoman of the Housing Authority Board.

In addition, Williams said tenants would be evacuated as a precaution when tiles containing asbestos were involved.

The commissioner said she was told that tile workers were instructed verbally not to remove tiles if it appeared that asbestos was present, but instead to lay new tile on top of the old.

However, Torres said that instruction was never given to the employees.

"That's where the disconnect came in," Williams conceded.

The city tile workers said they first met with their supervisor five years ago about their concerns, pointing out that the tiles and adhesive appeared to contain asbestos and created dust when removed. In addition, the city workers noted that they were directed to scrape each tile clean, sending more dust into the air.

In 2002, some of the workers were given training in the identification and handling of asbestos, but a promise to provide respirators was never fulfilled, Torres said. Housing Authority officials acknowledge that the workers were never given respirators.

"I feel I have been lied to and that they did not really care about people being exposed," said another Housing Authority employee, who asked not to be identified for fear it would affect his employment.

The city tile workers said their concerns were heightened when private renovation crews doing the same work on other agency apartments were seen putting on safety gear and cordoning off work sites with "danger" signs warning people to stay away because of the presence of asbestos.

Torres said he was so frustrated by the agency's lack of response that he paid to test tiles removed by his crew.

Lab results from Forensic Analytical, which Torres provided to The Times, indicate that the tiles were 7% asbestos and that the adhesive contained 5% asbestos.

The city workers are also worried about the health of Housing Authority tenants because asbestos-ridden tiles were removed from hundreds of apartments at Nickerson Gardens, San Fernando Gardens, Pueblo del Rio, Jordan Downs and William Mead.

"Once asbestos is in a friable state, it becomes airborne, contaminating everyone that is exposed to it, including tenants," Torres wrote recently to Judy Luther, acting executive director of the Housing Authority.

Sandra Obando, a tenant leader at San Fernando Gardens, said she was concerned that precautions might not have been taken to protect apartment residents.

The Housing Authority receives federal and city money to operate 18 major housing developments that are home to 22,500 low-income people.

Cal/OSHA investigators visited Housing Authority properties last month and are keeping their inquiry open, according to Dean Fryer, a spokesman for the agency.

South Coast Air Quality Management District inspectors took samples from a work site on June 8, and those have been sent to the laboratory where they are still undergoing testing, according to Sam Atwood, a spokesman for the district.

In the meantime, the district has issued a "notice to comply" that requires the Housing Authority to provide documentation to show that proper procedures are in place to handle asbestos, Atwood said.

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