Vernon School District hit with huge fine for breaking asbestos rules - InfoNews

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Vernon School District hit with huge fine for breaking asbestos rules

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April 18, 2017 - 10:30 AM

VERNON - A fine of more than $628,000 has been leveled against the Vernon School District in connection with renovation work done on a leased building that contained asbestos.

WorkSafe B.C. has fined the school district a total of $628,034 for not taking proper safety precautions, not providing and maintaining a safe workplace, and a lack of due diligence to prevent the circumstances, according to a media release from the school district.

The penalty follows a $75,000 fine in 2016 for similar issues after the district failed to properly identify material that may contain asbestos.

The school district will be fighting the fine.

“The District believes that it advanced sound arguments why no penalty was warranted and that it took all reasonable steps to comply with its asbestos hazard mitigation obligations. The District is disappointed in what it considers to be an excessive penalty and will be working with our lawyers and asking for a review of the penalty,” states the release.

In an interview, Superintendent Joe Rogers says the fine, if it is not successfully reduced or withdrawn, could have an impact on education. The fine would be paid out of the district’s $1-million contingency fund, and while it won’t affect staff and programs this year, it could in the future depending on how quickly the board wants to replenish the fund.

“We build it (contingency fund) back up through surpluses. If we don’t have surpluses in the future it may affect programs,” Rogers says. “Certainly if we have to absorb the fine, it is concerning. It potentially could be six or more teachers, or dozens of secretaries. It depends on (what) WorkSafe will do and if we have surpluses to replenish that fund.”

The penalty has to do with renovation work at the Open Door Learning Centre on 30 Street in downtown Vernon. On May 4, 2016 a worker became concerned about what appeared to be pre-1990 building materials which could contain asbestos, but work didn’t stop immediately. 

READ MORE: After $75 K fine, Vernon School District broke asbestos rules again

Rogers says the district takes worker safety very seriously and has developed an asbestos management program and asbestos exposure control plan, has retained a qualified person to conduct asbestos surveys, hazard assessments and prepare inventories of all asbestos containing materials in all district buildings, and has undertaken comprehensive asbestos training with its maintenance workers.

At the time of the second violation, the plan did not include specific asbestos management policies for leased buildings, such as the one it was renting for the Open Door Learning Program. Rogers says the district believed, at the time, that the building had been renovated in the past and did not contain any asbestos-containing material.

“Certainly after this we will be demanding from the building owner a full disclosure, and in this case… when we look back, we should have received a full disclosure from the building owner explaining what had been done,” Rogers says.

During renovations, there were four or five maintenance workers on site. Rogers is not aware of any of them suffering adverse health effects. No students or teachers were exposed.

As part of its appeal, the school district will be arguing the penalty should be imposed as a worksite violation, not based on the total payroll.

“They fined us on all 850 employees, that’s why the fine is so high,” Rogers says.

If the penalty was calculated based on the immediate worksite affected, Rogers says the fine would be closer to $1,250.

— This story was updated at 11:19 a.m. April 18, 2017, to add comments from Superintendent Joe Rogers. 

To contact a reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston or call 250-309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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