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CalOSHA Investigating Safety of Santa Barbara Police Department Building

The Police Officers Association wants testing done for toxins in the building, citing safety concerns and cancer cases among station employees

Employees in the Santa Barbara Police Station have asked for testing at the building for potential toxins and CalOSHA is now investigating.
Employees in the Santa Barbara Police Station have asked for testing at the building for potential toxins and CalOSHA is now investigating.  (Gina Potthoff / Noozhawk file photo)

CalOSHA is investigating the safety of the Santa Barbara Police Department's building at 215 E. Figueroa after employees raised concerns about the structure containing potentially toxic substances.

Victoria Maglio, spokeswoman for the California Department of Industrial Relations, Division of Occupational Safety and Health, confirmed that the agency opened an investigation at the end of February, and that it is ongoing.

Though she could not comment on when the probe would be complete, she did say that the typical case takes about six months.

The city of Santa Barbara released a statement last week saying employee safety is a “top priority.” 

The statement also said the city is partnering with CalOSHA during its ongoing investigation.

“It is the city’s policy and practice to address all employee health-and-safety concerns, and to take steps necessary to remove identified hazards and create a safe working environment,” the statement said.

One of those concerned voices is that of Sgt. Mike McGrew, president of the Santa Barbara Police Officers Association.

McGrew has worked for the department for 29 years, and said more incidents of cancer among employees and retirees have caught his attention in recent years.

People with smoking-related cancers who McGrew knows didn’t smoke have raised his concern. There have been concerns about asbestos in the building for years, along with concerns about lead in the building’s shooting range.

“It’s always been on the minds of people,” he said.

McGrew said the employees were told the building would be tested, but several months later noticed that its HVAC system was being replaced, and “that the ceiling was getting knocked down, with pieces falling onto people’s desks,” he said.  

Employees hadn't been notified of any testing, so the POA contacted OSHA, which picked up the investigation, McGrew said.

He said employees had asked for testing during construction, “but were told that for financial reasons, it couldn’t be done.”

Since then, he’s met with various city leaders and asked for testing not only on asbestos, but for lead levels, radon and other carcinogens.

McGrew said he just wants to make sure “employees are safe and that anything the department is not compliant with is fixed.”

McGrew has also been pushing for a decontamination area for officers if they come into contact with hazardous material during the course of their patrols.

“We get exposed to blood-borne pathogens… That happens quite a bit,” he said.

McGrew had experience with this when, in May, he was one of five officers who had to be treated after they were exposed to a violent subject’s blood after the man slammed his hand through a window and then resisted officers.

McGrew said the suspect’s blood made contact with an open wound on his body, and McGrew and the other officers had to be tested for HIV and Hepatitis C.

“Luckily it turned out okay,” he said, but added that the officers didn’t have anywhere to clean up after the incident.

The Fire Department’s decontamination facilities at Fire Station 1 were later designated after the OSHA inspection, McGrew said.

In its statement, the city said that Police Chief Cam Sanchez had contacted the city’s risk-management division in April 2014 about a possible connection between the building and serious health conditions reported by staff, asking risk management to look into the concerns.

Sanchez did not offer additional comment to Noozhawk when asked about the building’s safety.

“The city then engaged in responsive actions that extended over many months,” including reaching out to doctors at Sansum Occupational Medicine, the statement said.

Those doctors reviewed a list of employee health conditions, and “confirmed to the city in September 2014 that those conditions had no connection with the building environment.”

The statement also said that the city worked with physicians at Sansum to determine the scope of work for a full air-quality study at the police station, and that the city contracted with licensed professionals to perform testing throughout the building. 

At the same time, a separate construction project was conducted to replace the HVAC system in the police building, and an asbestos testing and abatement plan was developed. 

McGrew said he had not seen the plan, and had requested it from the city as well as how the city shared it with employees.

The city also stated that in February of this year, it got “preliminary verbal results from the full air quality study which indicated no concerns about air quality in the building.”

In April 2015, a final written report about the air quality study was received by the city, shared with Sansum doctors, and shared with “all the employees who work in the police building. The city also held question and answer sessions with employees to discuss the report findings.”

The city said there was additional lead and asbestos testing in early July after POA members requested more testing, and the city is currently testing the radon levels in the building, and will contract out for more mold testing.

“The police station is an old building, but the city has been assured on multiple occasions by environmental health professionals that the police station is a safe work environment for its employees,” the statement said.

“Nevertheless, management continues to take all employee concerns seriously, and will respond in any way we can to alleviate these concerns.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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