Testimony Shows Attention to Safety Lacking at Wastewater Plant

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Friday, August 5, 2016, 8:45 am
Alice Dreger and Ann Nichols

Above: plaintiffs’ exhibit showing a warning sign at the wastewater plant, which plaintiffs contend was placed seven years after friable asbestos was identified.

The central argument in the lawsuit brought against the City of East Lansing by nine workers at our wastewater treatment plant is that supervisors did not give the workers safety protections they were due. While we have noted that the legal bar for winning a case like this is high, violation notices and fines already levied by the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) support the contention that the plant did not follow some health and safety regulations. Testimony collected in the discovery phase of the lawsuit also seems to be supporting a vision of the plant as having been a place lacking in what occupational experts call a “safety culture.”

While there was a failure to follow safety regulations at multiple administrative levels, it seems fairly clear from an internal Human Resources report uncovered and depositions taken by the plaintiffs’ attorney that the words and actions of maintenance supervisor Wayne Beede were particularly problematic. According to all accounts we have obtained, Beede caused and did not appropriately act on the mercury spill.

Beede is also said by several workers to have intimidated them into staying quiet about safety concerns. For example, one told Human Resources staff in March of 2014 that “he was rather afraid of Beede, as he exhibited some anger issues and used intimidation.” Another said “he is not comfortable going to Beede with concerns because Beede gets frustrated with him.” A third said that “Beede’s message…was that staff should report concerns or issues to Beede, not to the Union” or to the plant supervisor, Catherine Garnham.

For her part, Garnham told Human Resources, during the mercury spill internal investigation, “Beede’s reaction to safety concerns, in Garnham’s opinion, was a secondary concern. His primary concern was getting the work done. Frequently, Beede failed to follow through on information that was shared in safety meetings.”

But Beede was clearly not the only person in a supervisory position failing to observe safety regulations. As we reported last week, the plant had a formal assessment of asbestos risk in 2007 yet City administrators did not do what the resulting report recommended—including putting up warning signs as appropriate, notifying workers of risk, and moving to abate active dangers—until seven years later, when workers now suing sounded an alarm.

Additionally, rather than investigating workers’ reports of a mercury spill—including allegedly in a sink, something that ought to have been of particular concern to the head of the wastewater treatment plant—Garnham says she simply asked Beede if there was a problem. When he indicated there was not, she let the matter drop. She confirmed in her lawsuit deposition that she didn’t look in the sink.

Garnham also claimed in her recent lawsuit testimony that she “didn’t know [that] when there was a mercury spill you had to contact either the DEQ or the Ingham County Health Department.” Asked about whether any of the workers were issued personal protective gear when they were working in areas known to have high asbestos risk, Garnham answered that no one on staff, including her, wore protective equipment in such cases.

Asked by the plaintiffs’ attorney, Neal Wilensky, whether there was any “training in asbestos safety or health issues in those seven years” between when the asbestos survey came in and when the workers sounded an alarm, Garnham replied, “since I started in 2008 they had not” had any such training, “no.” She acknowledged she knew that exposure to asbestos could result in lung cancer.

Wilensky also asked Garnham about a time a pet of hers that she had brought to the plant was accidentally killed. Although the deposition doesn’t specify a species, Wilensky told ELi it was a turtle. According to Garnham’s testimony, “carelessness had caused the animal to be harmed.”

Asked by Wilensky to explain the “careless act,” Garnham answered, “bottles that had been labeled as hydrochloric acid were assumed to contain distilled water and [were] utilized to put to this animal and it caused it to be exposed to acid.” (Garnham did not elaborate further, and Wilensky did not ask her to.) This seems to suggests employees at the plant could find themselves confusing bottles of acid with bottles of water.

During his deposition for the lawsuit, former Director of Public Works Todd Sneathen told Wilensky that, when he was an assistant public works director, there was no health or safety training that he could recall, although he could recall sexual harassment training. He remembered that there were safety “booklets” kept under a stairwell at the plant, but he couldn’t recall whether workers had received safety training in mercury or asbestos.

Sneathen also told the story, in his deposition, of climbing into a dumpster at the plant when he heard that there were mercury-contaminated materials therein that had been used (improperly) to clean up the mercury spill in November 2013. He said, “I went in there several times” in order “to check to see what had been thrown in there.” He found the contaminated sink and a contaminated vacuum. He apparently did not wear any protective gear while climbing in the dumpster.

Asked who had pulled out the sink to put it in the dumpster, Sneathen said “several maintenance employees.” Asked “what kind of protective equipment” they were wearing, Sneathen answered, “To my knowledge they weren’t wearing any specific equipment. Maybe gloves.” He said he had gone into the dumpster himself to see what was there because he “didn’t want [his] employees crawling in the dumpster.”

Asked whether he had considered it important in March 2014 “to find out whether [Beede] had poured the mercury down the drain” in November 2013, Sneathen replied, “Well, we knew the mercury had been released so at that point whether it was poured down the drain or not, I don’t know what level of importance that was, so.”

Sneathen also acknowledged the plant lacked standard operating procedures regarding asbestos until after employees raised the issue in 2014. He testified that signs were not hung to warn employees of asbestos, as required by regulations. He could not recall whether employees used protection when working in high asbestos risk areas. He could recall the fines from MIOSHA, assessed after workers made formal complaints to that agency.

Garnham, Sneathen, and Beede all left employment with the City in 2014. According to testimonies we have received, none of them received any formal discipline. Beede’s current work status is unclear. Garnham and Sneathen now work for private companies that contract for public works in Michigan.

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