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College district appeals OSHA fines
March 08, 2007, 12:00 AM By Heather Murtagh
Twenty-six health and safety violations totaling $29,700 in fines are being appealed by the San Mateo County Community College District which was cited after Cal/OSHA investigated science buildings at two local community colleges after six teachers complained of flu-like symptoms and three developed tumors.

Investigations were launched after six College of San Mateo teachers complained of respiratory problems and three Skyline College teachers developed a tumor over the past five years. The American Federation of Teachers Local 1493 requested help examining the claims, from the district office and the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration, after learning about the situations on Monday, Aug. 28. Nothing was found linking the symptoms to the working conditions, however, other issues such as exposure to chemicals, exposed wires and up-to-date handling procedures were reported in early January. Jose Nuñez, executive director of facilities, planning and operations for the San Mateo County Community College District, appealed all the findings, since many of the problems can be quickly fixed and others pertain to a building that won’t be used after 60 days. Nuñez has until June 30 to make the changes.

Fourteen citations, totaling $22,500 in fines, were issued because of conditions at Skyline Building 7 — a science building which opened last semester. Fines reached up to $9,000 for a frayed electrical cord from a refrigerator containing flammable liquids. Other citations included $1,500 for exposure to formaldehyde vapors from cadavers. A couple violations addressed the exposure to formaldehyde and handling of other chemicals.

Twelve violations, totaling $7,200 in fines, were found at CSM Building 36 — a science building set to be renovated this summer. Again, exposure to formaldehyde was a major issue. Formaldehyde is classified as a probable human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Many of the citations were repetitive, said Nuñez who is in the process of addressing the issues.

Cal/OSHA was one of three groups that investigated the work conditions. Testing began after the complaints were made, said Nuñez. A private firm of industrial hygienists, the Delani Group, conducted air quality tests finding high humidity in one area as the only problem, said John Kirk, AFT Local 1493 chief grievance officer. Kirk filed with Cal/OSHA, to ensure the safety of the staff.

"Now, at least, the faculty knows the conditions they should be working in,” he said.

Last year, six teachers working in the new science building at CSM complained of either laryngitis or conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye.

The building was thoroughly cleaned before it was opened to staff and students this semester. Air monitors were placed in the building to ensure the air is clean.

Staff at Skyline complained of more serious ailments. Three teachers working in the science building were diagnosed with a tumor over the past five or six years. One teacher developed a fatal brain tumor in the late 1990s. Two more recent cases involved teachers developing a benign — not cancerous — ear tumor.

Looking into environmental causes of cancer was handed off to the California Environmental Health Investigations Branch and the Northern California Cancer Center, which began working on the case Sept. 5. No link was found during the investigation. The center did suggest the situation continue to be monitored.

Heather Murtagh can be reached by e-mail: or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 105. What do you think of this story? Send a letter to the editor: 

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