Safety Zone

When Phoenix-based Huber, Hunt & Nichols won the $244 million City Hall seismic retrofit contract, the general contractor also won something else: the obligation to comply with no less than 19 pages of regulations concerning hazardous materials, as laid out in the official bid specifications for the job.

City Hall, you see, is an old building -- built between 1913 and 1916, before the dangers posed by some toxic materials were well-known. Its halls and walls are slathered in lead paint, its pipes and attic cottoned with asbestos. Plus, there are the underground storage tanks, PCB-containing light ballasts, and mercury-containing light tubes and bulbs found in a 1994 hazmat survey conducted by Clayton Engineering.

So how safe are the workers who have to spend their days surrounded by these hazards?

To get a sense of what's at stake for the construction workers inside City Hall, consider this: Infertility, brain damage, and birth defects are only three possible effects of overexposure to lead dust. "Lead is so dangerous it can kill," says Rod Reclus, a representative of the Painters' Local 4, who is working with the state to create a new lead training curriculum for painters.

And the risks of asbestos are well-known: Asbestos fibers are an inevitable byproduct of asbestos removal, and breathing the fibers can cause lung, chest, and abdominal cancer.

Since last March, workers from CST Environmental, the San Leandro-based subcontractor, have removed more than 75 tons of toxic lead and asbestos from the landmark.

Watchdog consultants, provided by both the city and the general contractor (as per the bid specifications), have been hired to make sure that the million dollar's worth of toxics work runs smoothly and safely.

The speci-fications, or "specs," require that the workers receive 40 hours of training for handling lead, another 40 for asbestos. Says Ross Mandt, the project's safety engineer, "I try to tell them the dangers without scaring them."

Blood tests for lead levels are another requirement. While test results are confidential, Mandt asserts that "nobody has elevated levels over [federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration] standards."

Still, there have been five reported occasions of high lead content in the air. According to the daily reports written by SCA Environmental, the Berkeley-based industrial hygienists who monitor CST's work, the highest level recorded is 161 micrograms per cubic meter (the OSHA limit for safe air lead levels is 50 micrograms within the same volume). But all lead workers are required to wear respirators, which can filter out up to 2,500 micrograms. "The workers don't have a choice about wearing them," says Mandt, in his stern, flat voice. "If they don't," he continues, "they're outta here."

And twice so far during the process of removing asbestos from the building, the protective barrier shielding other workers from the tox-ic waste has ripped. In addition, the daily reports show numerous occurrences of "overloaded" air samples -- off the register in terms of the amount of particles picked up in the air.

But according to CST, that's not a problem with the asbestos removal, but with the monitoring. "The city opted for the cheaper sampling method," which tests for all particles in the air, not simply asbestos particles, according to CST's project manager, Trent Michels.

When tested in the more precise (and more expensive) manner, there has been no recorded evidence of high asbestos levels, Michels says.

Michels continues, "This is one of the safest jobs I've ever worked on ... 200 men a day working for eight months with no serious injuries at all."

Carole Ruwart, the city's environmental regulatory specialist, concurs. "The results are good," she says. "We can only speculate how it might have gone had we not had oversight."

Huber, Hunt & Nichols' toxic-removal reputation was assailed in 1991 in St. Petersburg, Fla., where it was general contractor for the Thunderdome baseball stadium. There, 26 workers sued the company claiming that it had allowed them to work on-site in contaminated soil without proper warning or equipment. The suit against the company was later dropped, as the workers had already collected workers compensation, a collection which sometimes precludes subsequent lawsuits. The workers eventually lost their case against the 10 remaining defendants in a bitterly contested trial, which lasted four years and cost over a million dollars.

Here in San Francisco, however, the general contractor is publicly celebratory of its safety measures. The company recently held a barbecue in honor of the safety of the job. Throughout the building, stickers declaring "75,000 Safe Manhours, October 1995, Huber, Hunt & Nichols, Safety Pays" decorate workers' hard hats. And Ross Mandt prominently displays a "Notice of No Violation After Inspection" received after a July CAL/OSHA inspection.

-- Liza Goodwin

 
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