State audit says CSU needs to improve handling of hazardous materials

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An illustration of a hand holding a vial of a hazardous chemical substance.
(Dalia Quiroz / Daily Titan)

UPDATE: This article was updated on April 30 to include the Cal State Fullerton administration’s response to the state auditor’s findings.

The California State University Chancellor’s Office was berated by California State Auditor Elaine Howle in an April 24 review of the CSU’s oversight of the handling of hazardous materials on its campuses.

“The Chancellor’s Office has not actively ensured that campuses have adequate policies and processes to protect the health and safety of those who work with or near hazardous materials,” said Howle in the audit.  “Despite the fact that many of these deficiencies have remained unresolved for nearly two decades, the Chancellor’s Office has not taken the steps necessary to hold the campuses accountable.”

Of the CSU campuses, the audit reviewed Cal State Channel Islands, Cal State Sacramento, San Diego State and Sonoma State. It concluded that the Chancellor’s Office had not ensured that campuses consistently submit required annual reports regarding their health and safety programs, even though the reports are “critical to its oversight efforts.”

Aditionally, Howle said some campuses even failed to “adequately” monitor key safety equipment, unspecified in the audit, to ensure it was in proper working condition, and that several campuses did not properly notify employees regarding rooms containing asbestos.

While Cal State Fullerton was not named in the report, nor was it visited by anyone from the auditor’s office relating to this specific case, the university had its own chemical scare on Feb. 19 when a 24-year-old student received burns while conducting an experiment in an outdoor lab on the north side of the engineering building. The chemical combustion left a white cloud of smoke wafting over two buildings on campus.

We are using the (audit’s) findings as a resource in ensuring that our policies and procedures are current,” said Jeff Cook, CSUF chief communications officer.

The audit was requested by the California State University Employees Union and in an April 23 statement, the union laid out specific examples of what they claimed was a lack of systemwide oversight.

“At CSU Sacramento, a 10-month delay occurs before the campus community is notified of lead in the drinking water. Staff are also ordered to clean up a hazardous chemical spill without proper protective gear. The employees involved in the cleanup subsequently report severe and catastrophic health problems,” said Khanh Weinberg, the union’s communications officer, in the statement.

The audit was shared with CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White in its draft phase, to give White the opportunity to respond to the audit’s criticisms in a March 29 letter that would be included in the final report.

“The CSU takes seriously the health and safety of all of our employees and students,” White said in his letter, which stated the CSU plans to conduct health and safety audits at all of the campuses beginning in 2019.

While White, in his response, said he agreed with almost all of the report’s recommendations, he disputed the audit’s assertion that campus-level joint health and safety committees are required as part of the CSU Collective Bargaining Agreement with the State Employees Trades Council.

“The agreement allows for the establishment of these safety committees, but does not require them to meet regularly,” White said in his response.

Howle, responding to White’s response in the audit, voiced the state’s disappointment that the Chancellor’s Office disagreed, and that White “apparently does not see the value in campuses having these committees.”

Howle, in the audit, said that having these committees would allow the campuses to ensure they receive feedback from employee representatives on conditions associated with the campuses’ work environments and use this feedback to more effectively recommend specific training based on recent incidents.

“The state must hold the CSU accountable,” said Neil Jacklin, president of the CSU Employees Union, in the April 23 statement. “The lack of meaningful state oversight allows the CSU to ignore its own regulations and state mandates, contributes to wasteful spending and now threatens the health and safety of every CSU employee and student. This must not be allowed to continue.”

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