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Over a dozen workers were exposed to asbestos during the construction project of Building 36 for the Veterans Crisis Line on the Canandaigua Veterans Affairs (VA) campus. These workers included firefighters, police officers, and those with construction positions such as engineering and cleanup roles.
“We don’t know exactly who all was exposed, but between 34 and 38 individuals came forward,” said business representative for SEIU 200 United David Palmer.
SEIU 200 United filed a compliant with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in April. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and VA Inspector General’s office became involved, resulting in a stop-work order almost immediately.
Of all the individuals in the U.S. who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma cancer, veterans are the demographic with the highest incidence. The simple reason for the increased risk is asbestos exposure. Asbestos was used in hundreds of applications and unavoidable for most military personnel.
Some studies show as many as 30% of all Americans with mesothelioma cancer are veterans who were exposed while on active duty. The U.S. Department of Asbestos Affairs recognizes mesothelioma cancer as a service-related medical condition, and while vets are not permitted to seek compensation directly from the U.S. government, they can request benefits from the VA.
Mesothelioma has especially affected those who served between WWII and the Vietnam War with a particular focus on the Navy as asbestos was widely used in naval ships and shipyards. Whether it was the boiler or engine rooms, galleys, or sleeping quarters, Navy personnel were exposed to very high levels of asbestos.
In this instance, OSHA discovered four “serious asbestos violations.” Correct procedures were not being followed, VA management did not hire competent staff to oversee the project, and the proper precautions were not being carried out to contain asbestos exposure within the construction area.
“Subsequent to OSHA findings, several VA employees filed claims with Workman’s Compensation and VA Employee Health as potential exposure victims,” said the union. “Front-line workers tried to make facilities management reconsider how the project was being handled, but felt they were dismissed.”
In a recent statement, the VA commented, “The medical center maintains the safety of its staff as top priority. All the employees that may have been in contact with asbestos have been encouraged to report to employee health to be evaluated for potential exposure.”
“Due to the nature of asbestos-related illnesses often lacking acute symptoms despite having serious long-term health risks, workers who are active in their Union are concerned people who may have been exposed to asbestos in Building 36 may not come forward due to fear of retaliation,” stated the union.
“It sounds like a situation with potential serious ramifications for veterans, staff, and the Veterans Crisis Line. The FLVAC will be inquiring,” said Chairman of the Finger Lakes Veterans Advocacy Council (FLVAC) Wayne Thompson.
An abatement contractor has been hired to manage the asbestos area and OSHA investigators will return in a few weeks to check in.