The Medical Sciences Building (MSB), located at 1 King’s College Circle, has been under scrutiny after construction caused the displacement and proliferation of dust containing asbestos.
Asbestos is a silicate material that was widely used in construction for insulation and fireproofing up until it was banned in Canada in 2018, with some exceptions. When asbestos fibres are released into the air they can pose a serious health risk if inhaled.
U of T has maintained that its testing procedures are showing low amounts of asbestos and that a capable contractor is dealing with containing and removing the dangerous materials. CUPE 3902, the union representing sessional lecturers and teaching assistants, is contesting this.
Construction causes closure of lab
The $189.9 million Lab Innovation for Toronto (LIFT) project, which set out to make improvements to laboratory infrastructure on campus, began abating and removing asbestos in the MSB during November 2016.
By early February, after construction in four of the LIFT labs had been completed and one was still underway, “occupants reported unusual dust in their sixth floor lab, adjacent to the remaining construction site,” according to a release from Trevor Young, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine on March 17.
Asbestos in dust, in a site unconnected to the first incident, was discovered on February 24, according to Young.
Scott Mabury, the university’s Vice President University Operations, told The Varsity that asbestos has been found “in a handful of rooms, some number less than ten, probably less than five” and said that there are a total of 1905 rooms in the MSB.
University carries out testing
The source of the asbestos was initially thought to have been within a primer or undercoat of paint that was used when the building was completed in 1968. This was first reported in a memo from Graham L. Collingridge, Chair of the Department of Physiology and was also relayed in an email to CUPE 3902 members by Ryan Culpepper, the union’s Chair.
This has since been proven inaccurate. “It’s a wall sealer,” Mabury said, and “it is only released if somebody penetrates the sealer.”
Mabury noted that the asbestos found in the sealer was “exceedingly rare.”
“Our external experts who do hundreds [of tests] per year — this is either the first or the second time they’ve ever seen it in a sealer ever and we’re talking decades of measurements,” he stated, and said that is the first time asbestos in a sealer has been found at U of T.
The university is rigorously testing the air in the MSB, as Mabury says, “over and over again, under every condition, day and night, hallways, labs, common areas.”
However, CUPE 3902 is contesting the validity of the university’s testing procedure.
Ryan Culpepper’s email states that “concerns have been raised that the tests may not have fully complied with OHSA and other statutory health and safety obligations, and the Union is still investigating these concerns.”
“The information in the query is patently false,” Mabury said, in response to Culpepper’s statement. “We are clearing an area after cleaning. We used approved, regulated methods.”
“We have to date 243 air samples, all negative,” Mabury continued. “Why that’s not the headline, I am baffled.”
Unions, faculty association respond
CUPE 3902, the U of T Faculty Association (UTFA), and the U of T Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) have all issued responses to the ongoing asbestos investigation.
In Culpepper’s email, he said that the union’s “view is that this is not an acceptable level of safety and that all workers have the right to go to work without taking unnecessary risks. It is your choice what to do with the information you have.” CUPE 3902 is advising that members avoid going into the MSB for any reason until the Ministry of Labour clears the building.
“Our concern extends to all members of the U of T community,” said Culpepper.
In a statement on their website, the UTFA says that it “feels compelled to urge its members and the wider community to think seriously about whether they should be entering the Medical Sciences Building at this time and under these circumstances.”
The UTFA also makes clear that, under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, all workers have the right to refuse unsafe work. Further, “UTFA will advise and support any members who wish to exercise this right.”
The UTGSU echoed the UTFA, saying that “all students who work and/or study in the MSB that they have the right to refuse to enter the building should they feel that their safety is at risk.”
Mabury finds these statements “deeply disappointing,” citing “all the information we’ve provided, all the test results we’ve provided … the extensive sampling that’s ongoing that shows no risk of inhalation exposure of asbestos.”
“We believe that the building is appropriate to be working in. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be saying otherwise,” Mabury concluded.
CUPE 3902 and the UTGSU have asked all members who have worked in the MSB between November 2016 and March 2017 to visit a doctor and fill out a Workplace Exposure Incident Form and submit it to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board.
These unions have also said that anyone who may have come into contact with someone who was exposed to asbestos, before the person had bathed or changed clothes, is also recommended to visit a doctor and follow the same procedure.
Potential legal challenge facing U of T
CUPE 3902 is alleging that the university’s handling of the situation warrants legal action. Culpepper cites three “major violations of legislation.”
Culpepper is alleging that the university hired an incompetent contractor to handle the asbestos. He also says that the university failed to notify both employees and Joint Health and Safety Committees about these workplace hazards, as required by law.
“I can 100 per cent guarantee you that there will be legal action,” Culpepper told The Varsity.
“These are disappointing statements. They’re all false,” Mabury said in response to Culpepper. “The contractor we’ve hired is a very well respected asbestos contractor. Worked for years on this campus, worked for extended periods of time on the broader sector. They have an excellent reputation. They’ve had excellent performance up until one incident.”
Mabury refused to name the contractor but stated that the contractor is no longer working with U of T and will not do so for “for some period of time.” On the issue of their communication, Mabury said that the university has “notified all employees as required. We’ve done it on a routine basis. We’ve done it from the beginning.” Mabury went on to say that, more broadly, “we’re very comfortable with our legislative communication.”
CUPE 3902 is holding an information session for its members and graduate students who operate out of the MSB on March 27.
— with files from Tom Yun and Kaitlyn Simpson
Editor’s Note (May 21, 2019, 2:57 pm): a previous version of this article stated that asbestos was banned in Canada in 1979. In actuality, it was banned, with exceptions, in 2018.