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Maintenance Staff in Criminal Courts Exposed to Asbestos

Times Staff Writer

State investigators have discovered small piles of hazardous asbestos debris in the crawl spaces between all 19 floors of the downtown Criminal Courts Building and have closed those areas to maintenance workers.

Investigators have found no evidence, however, to indicate that the building’s 1,400 office workers are threatened by the cancer-causing asbestos fibers, a spokesman for Cal/OSHA, the state job safety agency, said Tuesday.

“We’ve been discovering debris all over those crawl-space areas,” spokesman Richard Stephens said. “Our concern is mostly for the employees who had to go in there--whether they were properly protected.

“We have no reason to believe,” he said, “that there is any problem with the air in the offices,” most of which are occupied by court workers and several hundred employees in the district attorney’s office.

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No Suspected Hazard

The building’s air conditioning system draws air through filters from the crawl spaces, but since the asbestos debris is not airborne unless disturbed by workers, there is no suspected hazard, Stephens said.

Tests for airborne asbestos over the last four months have revealed fiber levels well within state and federal safety standards for offices, he said. By contrast, a testing device attached to maintenance workers in the crawl spaces found, on one occasion, fiber levels that are not considered safe.

The state began to post signs excluding carpenters, electricians, plumbers, refrigeration and general maintenance workers from the crawl spaces and adjacent mechanical rooms on Friday, and had closed 36 areas by late Tuesday, Stephens said.

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The state probably will cite the county for unsafe conditions and issue cleanup orders when the investigation is completed within a week, he said.

County officials, still responding to disclosures last week that asbestos hazards had been discovered in 20 other county buildings, said they were not sure that asbestos in the 1-million-square-foot Criminal Courts Building poses a danger.

“There is asbestos in crawl spaces in almost every building built before 1972, public and private, including private homes,” said William F. Stewart, the county’s deputy chief administrative officer and acting director of the Facilities Management Department.

Stewart’s chief deputy, Bill Allen, added: “The first thing we’ll do if it’s necessary is go to the Board (of Supervisors) for money to correct the problem . . . if we have a problem.”

State officials said that asbestos debris must be removed because it can be stirred up by maintenance workers unaware of its presence. Such workers probably would not be wearing respirators and protective clothing as is required when handling asbestos, nor would they know that they should clean asbestos off their clothing before leaving the crawl spaces.

Reiner Cited Problem

A spokeswoman for Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner said the spread of asbestos by untrained or sloppy maintenance workers is exactly the problem Reiner has been trying to have corrected since 1984.

Last fall, after conducting his own criminal investigation into county’s response to his asbestos-related complaints, Reiner asked the Los Angeles city attorney’s office to determine whether misdemeanor charges of negligence should be brought against the county, said Jan Chatten-Brown, special assistant to Reiner on occupational and environmental protection issues. No charges were filed. A concern raised repeatedly by Reiner and county employee unions is that workers have no way of knowing whether asbestos--which for three decades was widely used as an insulator and fire retardant--is in county buildings.

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No comprehensive survey of the county’s 4,500 buildings, including 1,800 that are regularly occupied, has been done. The Board of Supervisors was told Tuesday that such a survey would cost about $6 million.


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