Simon Fraser University is launching a re-inventory of asbestos on campus after a report found that work on asbestos ceiling tiles last year was done without proper safety procedures, exposing employees to the toxic substance.

The incident occurred during renovations in Strand Hall on the Burnaby campus in April 2016. However, the report found that the asbestos ceiling tiles in question were not even discovered until 2011 and subsequently failed to be labelled as per provincial regulations.  

As a result, an unknown number of employees and building occupants were exposed to asbestos during other renovations and routine maintenance leading up to last year’s incident.

Asbestos is a toxic fibre used in older construction that can damage the lungs and cause serious health problems or death, according to WorkSafeBC. It does not pose a health risk unless it is disturbed.

The university informed impacted employees of the safety breach when the incident came to light.

“Those affected were notified immediately, as was WorkSafeBC, and it was determined the office area was safe for occupancy,” chief safety officer Mark LaLonde told The Peak. “Any staff who are concerned regarding potential exposure to asbestos can register with the WorkSafeBC Exposure Registry Program.”

The university is required to keep an inventory of asbestos on campus and the label those locations according to WorkSafeBC regulations. Work done in those locations must follow safety procedures to ensure employees are not exposed to the substance.  

The asbestos ceiling tiles in Strand Hall were not labelled and a safety warning was only entered into the maintenance database on the building-level. When the maintenance department took out room-level work orders over the years, they were not flagged as containing asbestos, the report found.

The report “indicated that there were […] potentially 80 instances between 2011 and 2016 where routine maintenance that involved the moving or removal of only a limited number of ceiling tiles were performed without appropriate safe work procedures,” according to the university response.

Several larger renovations of the space were undertaken during this period using proper asbestos abatement procedures, the response noted.

In April 2016, a contractor disturbed the tiles without following safety procedures and work was halted. The tiles were properly removed later that year and the location has been taken off of the asbestos inventory.

Two surveys of asbestos on campus prior to 2011 failed to identify that the ceiling tiles contained asbestos. A major renovation of the finance department in 2009 also did not identify asbestos in the ceiling tiles.  

“It appears that a pre-renovation survey should have been conducted for the 2009 Finance Department renovations but by oversight was not performed,” the university response read. “Such a survey would likely have detected [asbestos] in the ceiling tiles triggering the use of appropriate safe work procedures for that renovation and notice to the university regarding [asbestos] in the ceiling tiles as early as 2009.”

In 2011, an extensive renovation of the advancement department discovered that the tiles contained asbestos.

After the incident in April 2016, the response noted that WorkSafeBC advised the university it was not required to track down past employees to notify them of potential exposure.

Earlier this year, a consulting company analysed samples taken from the ceiling tiles after their discovery.

“These samples were representative of a worst case scenario not likely to be encountered by non-asbestos workers performing routine maintenance work or those workers working in the immediate area when tile ceiling work did occur,” said the response.

The consulting company “concluded that the sampling data did not indicate that workers removing ceiling tiles for maintenance activities […] would be overexposed to asbestos.”

LaLonde told The Peak that the university is taking the recommendations of the report seriously and is taking steps to identify asbestos, inform employees about the presence of asbestos and notification procedures if incidents do occur.

“The re-inventory [of asbestos] is being undertaken to review known locations and to document newly-identified asbestos, and will be completed over the coming months,” LaLonde said. “The process will look at labelling, condition, and identify any maintenance work required in areas containing asbestos.”

A new asbestos inventory database is scheduled to be made available to the university this month.

Read the full report here