College district fights fines 

The San Mateo Community College District has appealed nearly $30,000 in fines imposed in connection with a rash of illnesses that struck some faculty members last year.

The fines for health and safety violations, issued by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, stemmed from an investigation into a rash of illnesses in two district buildings — one at Skyline College and the other at College of San Mateo.

The investigation took place after John Kirk, chief grievance officer with the American Federation of Teachers, filed a complaint on Aug. 29.

After a new science building on the San Mateo campus was opened,Kirk received a flurry of complaints from sick teachers. In a separate case, he said, three faculty members who worked in the same building at Skyline were diagnosed with brain tumors over an eight-year period, raising suspicion that the building had caused a "cancer cluster."

"The reason I filed the complaint was that eight teachers were sick with all kinds of respiratory illnesses and dizziness," Kirk said. "At Skyline, it was determined it wasn’t a cancer cluster because two of the brain tumors weren’t related to chemicals."

Building 7 at Skyline, which is a roughly 40-year-old science building that uses formaldehyde with cadavers, received 14 citations totaling $22,500, "involving chemical handling, use, programmatic administration, education and hazard assessment," according to OSHA’s report. Two of the citations were major — one due to the discovery of a "frayed" electrical power cord.

Building 36 at the College of San Mateo, a new facility that opened last summer, received 12 citations totaling $7,200 in fines, mostly involving the handling of chemicals.

In September, the district hired the Denali Group, a private firm, to investigate the health complaints. At the CSM building, they filtered out cellulose dust from the air, which did not pose a risk, according to Bob Kuykendall of the Denali Group.

Jose Nuñez, director of facilities planning and operations, said the district appealed the fines because OSHA issued citations for things it was not initially investigating.

"They were checking if the buildings were sick buildings and the reports came back all negative," he said. "As they were onsite, they cited us for different things."

OSHA’s investigation included putting chemical-measuring instruments on faculty members while they worked. OSHA issued its citations to the district on Jan. 12, and the district appealed on Jan. 29, according to Renee Bacchini, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Industrial Relations. The district has until June 30 to prove that all citations have been mitigated.

Building 7 at Skyline will be vacated soon when staff and faculty relocate to a newly constructed building, district officials said.

Kirk hopes the proposed fines will motivate the district to improve its handling of chemicals.

"The employer is supposed to monitor its employees if formaldehyde is involved and they hadn’t done that," Kirk said. "It’s good that this has been done because now they will do it in the future."

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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