Given the uproar this Spring over lead in the drinking water at Portland Public Schools, you’d think there’d be heightened vigilance against further lead exposure. But at Franklin High School in Southeast Portland, a massive remodel may be creating a worse lead problem than the minute concentrations that were found in the water of some classroom sinks.
Franklin, built in 1917, is mid-way through a $104 million renovation thanks to a voter-approved bond. Its fenced-off grounds have been a gigantic construction site for over a year.
Because lead paint is present in virtually all structures built before 1978, construction contractors are typically required to carefully contain and dispose of lead-contaminated materials when they disturb painted surfaces. While newer technologies such as powder coating have allowed for easier, safer forms of painting, older painting techniques do happen to make some safety compromises. But accompanied by a field rep for Painters and Allied Trades District Council 5, I visited the construction site and saw firsthand that that’s not happening everywhere at Franklin.
General contractor Skanska has hired a nonunion subcontractor, Chosen Wood Windows, to remove Franklin’s historic windows one by one to be refurbished offsite and reinstalled later. When I visited the construction site, the ground below where windows had been taken out was covered with construction debris, including paint chips and piles of discarded caulking. In classrooms, paint chips littered window sills and nearby floors. I even saw paint chips and dust that appeared to have been swept into a pile and left on the floor. Tests conducted by a representative of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 5 confirmed the presence of lead in the paint chips.
Elsewhere on the construction site, a union worker told me he has repeatedly seen window removal workers chipping, scraping, and sanding paint off the windows without wearing a respirator or bunny suit to protect themselves, and without setting up plastic sheeting to protect other workers or the environment. In at least one instance, he said he saw workers throwing debris out the window onto the ground below. All those practices are visible in smartphone videos he took and shared with the Labor Press. [See those videos, and photos of the remodel here.]
I observed a worker on a bucket lift outside a second-story window sanding, scraping, and chipping off paint with a chisel, with no containment except for a plastic sheet 15 feet below. At least that worker was wearing a respirator, and had handheld vacuum cleaner brands in his lift bucket.
Could lead from the windows put workers at risk?
Ben Maynard, lead enforcement officer at the Public Health Division of the Oregon Health Authority, said Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules for safe handling of lead wouldn’t apply at Franklin; they only apply to residential structures and child-occupied facilities like day care centers and elementary schools. [Before the renovation, there was a Head Start program at Franklin. It’s not clear if there will be when the remodel is complete.]
But Oregon-OSHA agents were interested to hear details, and after my call, began an investigation on July 25. OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) requires that if workers are manually sanding or scraping surfaces containing lead paint, they must be provided with respirators, protective clothing, hand washing facilities, clean areas for changing and storing clothing, training that covers lead health hazards, and blood tests to sample for lead. Lead-contaminated chips and dust must be taken up with a HEPA-filter-equipped vacuum.
Chosen Wood Windows was investigated by Oregon-OSHA once before. The worker safety agency received a complaint in 2012 that toxic chemical fumes were causing employees to become ill while removing lead-based paints in a poorly ventilated room at Chosen’s Canby, Oregon, facility, and that chemicals were being dumped into a hole in the ground. The OSHA inspection failed to confirm those allegations, but the company was fined $540 and cited for failing to properly train employees who work with stripper, thinner, sealer, and other chemicals; for lacking a written hazard communication program or respiratory protection program for employees; and for failure to establish a safety committee.
Chosen Wood Windows touts itself as a green company on its web site. It’s also certified as a lead-based paint renovation contractor by the state of Oregon. Chosen Wood Windows owner Vern Forrest did not return calls from the Labor Press.
A spokesperson for Skanska, the general contractor, said the company would not comment because it’s contractually bound to field media requests to Portland Public Schools, and because I entered the Franklin work site without permission.
David Mayne, spokesperson for Portland Public Schools bond-financed construction program, said contractors at Franklin are following all guidelines and regulations. After I sent him the photos and videos, Mayne said he visited the site and didn’t see any improper practices.
“We’re really strict about safety and compliance,” Mayne said.
Workplaces like this can be hazardous places to work. Those who sustain injuries on the job may want to get in touch with workers comp lawyers.
OSHA’s investigation remains open. It can take up to 180 days to complete.