Employers seem to view asbestos as a four-letter word. Most of them don’t like to talk about the toxic mineral, especially when it comes to its dangers. Many literally turn their heads the other way when it’s time to discuss issues such as proper asbestos abatement.
Thus was the case in the Paterson, NJ school system, where a district Environmental Occupational Health and Safety officer, the only female officer in the department, was let go after she expressed her concerns about the mishandling of asbestos-containing materials at several of the schools within the depressed and money-short school district, located in one of New Jersey’s poorest areas.
A few months after she spoke of her concerns to Steve Morlino, head of the district’s facilities department, Brenda Zemo – a safety officer since 2008 – found that she was no longer employed.
Her firing was most likely a result of the hostile workplace complaint she filed with district higher-ups, who eventually determined that her grievance was unfounded. By that time, she had been moved to the district business office, but when her contract came up for renewal, that renewal was denied.
Now she’s filed suit against the district, claiming wrongful termination and accusing it of the mishandling of numerous environmental issues, like lead and asbestos removal, reports an article published on nj.com.
Zemo says Mr. Morlino continuously ignored her advice as to the proper way to handle asbestos abatement. While Zemo demanded the hiring of licensed contractors for asbestos removal, Morlino – instead – chose to do things his own way and, as such, committed numerous safety violations. Zemo’s suit alleges that those actions include:
- Having unlicensed school staff remove asbestos tiles inside a classroom at School 12
- Improperly storing asbestos material at the school facilities site on 200 Sheridan Avenue as opposed to a proper landfill
- Having untrained staff remove mold at various schools including P.S. 25, P.S. 24, P.S. 10, P.S. 4, P.S. 30 and the Boris Kroll Mill Building.
- Improper installation of an HVAC system at 5 Colt Street, which housed the HARP and YES academies, leading staff members to complain about feeling ill due to a mildew odor at the building.
- Construction debris and dust being left at the 5 Colt Street site in violation of Indoor Air Quality Standards.
Morlino already had a less-than-stellar record when he was hired from the Newark School District in 2014. In Newark, he served as director of facilities for more than 15 years and, during that time, was accused of failing to change water filters, which led to hugely-elevated levels of lead in the water at Newark district schools.
Many American schools contain asbestos materials but not all present a hazard. When the asbestos is in good condition or is encapsulated for safety purposes, exposure isn’t a concern.
However, in many depressed school districts where money is tight, issues such as the presence of asbestos or its proper abatement are likely not to be addressed, creating hazards for the nation’s students and for staff and faculty that work in those decaying buildings.