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California State University
It Has Not Provided Adequate Oversight of the Safety of Employees and Students Who Work With Hazardous Materials

Report Number: 2017-119



The California State University (CSU) is a public university system with 23 campuses located throughout the State. As of February 2018, CSU campuses employed more than 49,000 faculty and staff (employees) and enrolled about 479,000 students. The chancellor is CSU’s chief executive officer and, through the Chancellor’s Office, oversees the CSU campuses. The chancellor may delegate his or her authority through executive orders to others within CSU, including campus presidents, who are the chief executive officers of their respective campuses. Similarly, campus presidents may delegate their authority to other officials on their respective campuses. The campus presidents report to the chancellor and are required to keep him or her informed about the activities on their campuses.

All CSU campuses purchase hazardous materials for both instructional and research purposes, although colleges that focus on the sciences, fine arts, and liberal arts use hazardous materials more frequently. The use of hazardous materials on campus usually generates hazardous waste that is subject to strict regulations related to its safe and proper storage, transport, and disposal. Because laboratory, classroom, and stockroom settings within the campuses’ chemistry, biology, physics, and art departments potentially expose students and employees to hazardous materials and waste, we focused this audit primarily on the use of hazardous materials in these departments. CSU employs a range of individuals within these departments who may regularly encounter hazardous materials. These employees include laboratory workers, such as faculty, laboratory instructional support assistants and technicians (support technicians), and student employees.

CSU’s Framework for Meeting Health and Safety Requirements

Because it is an employer, CSU is subject to state law that requires every employer to establish, implement, and maintain an effective injury and illness prevention program. This program must identify the person or persons responsible for its implementation, include a system—which may involve disciplinary action—for ensuring that employees comply with safe and healthy work practices, and establish a readily understandable system for communicating with employees about matters relating to occupational health and safety. Further, California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) enforces the State’s occupational safety and health laws and regulations. One of these regulations requires employers, including CSU campuses, to use a hazard communication program, safety data sheets, training, labels, and other forms of warning to provide information to their employees about the hazardous chemicals to which they may be exposed. Finally, state regulations require CSU campuses to have written plans that address certain health and safety risks to which employees may be exposed.

In 2008 the CSU Office of Audit and Advisory Services (University Auditor) released an audit report that concluded that the Chancellor’s Office had not assigned clearly defined programmatic health and safety responsibilities to its systemwide Office of Risk Management to reduce the risk of regulatory scrutiny, fines and sanctions, and inconsistent treatment and handling of issues. Specifically, the report identified the need for improvement in the systemwide policies for occupational health and safety, monitoring of prior audit findings, tracking and provision of health and safety training for employees and students, as well as improvement in health and safety inspection programs. Although occupational health and safety laws do not protect students who are not employed by CSU, the 2008 report also recommended that the Chancellor’s Office remind the campuses of the need to strengthen student health and safety training, assign campus responsibility for student training, and ensure that campus policies mandate that unresolved student training issues receive sufficient management to ensure resolution.

In response to the University Auditor’s findings and recommendations, the Chancellor’s Office issued Executive Order 1039 (Order 1039), which became effective on January 1, 2009. Order 1039 defined the delegation of authority and responsibility for environmental health and safety throughout CSU. It also directed campuses to evaluate the need for student health and safety training, particularly for educational activities that could expose students to biological, chemical, or physical hazards. Figure 1 describes the chancellor’s delegation of authority and designation of responsibilities for ensuring health and safety for students and employees according to Order 1039.

Under Order 1039, each CSU campus has an environmental health and safety program administrator (EH&S director) who is responsible for developing and maintaining a campus health and safety program that meets the state requirements for injury and illness prevention programs, as well as other applicable Cal/OSHA requirements. The campus health and safety program must include a system for ensuring that employees comply with safe and healthy work practices, procedures for identifying workplace hazards, and procedures for investigating occupational injuries and illnesses, among others. In addition, Order 1039 states that campus deans and department chairs should assist their EH&S directors in evaluating the need for student health and safety training, with a focus on those courses with a potential for exposure to biological, chemical, or physical hazards.

Figure 1
Description of the Chancellor’s Delegation of Authority and Designation of Responsibilities for Health and Safety

Figure 1, a graphic depicting the Chancellor’s Offices’ delegation of authority and designation of responsibility for health and safety that include: the Systemwide wide Office of Risk Management (within the Chancellor’s Office), campus presidents, campus Environmental Health and Safety program administrators (EH&S), and campus departments.

Source: California State Auditor’s analysis of the Chancellor Office’s Executive Order 1039.

Campus Safety Plans and Equipment

As Table 1 shows, state and federal regulations generally require each campus to develop different types of written plans that address specific areas related to health and safety. One of these, the chemical hygiene plan (chemical plan) sets forth procedures, equipment, and practices that are capable of protecting employees working in laboratories from the health hazards of certain chemicals. Similarly, the hazard communication program describes how the standards for labels, safety data sheets, and employee information and training will be met, while the respiratory protection program identifies specific procedures required for respirator use to protect the health of employees.

Table 1
Campus Health and Safety Plans
Chemical Hygiene Plan A plan to protect employees from the health hazards that hazardous chemicals present in laboratories.
Exposure Control Plan A plan to eliminate or minimize employee occupational exposure to blood and other potentially infectious materials.
Hazard Communication Program A program to inform employees about the hazardous chemicals to which they may be exposed. The program should describe the employer’s methods for labeling hazardous materials and providing forms of warning, for providing access to safety data sheets that provide information on chemical hazards, and for providing employee information and training.
Injury and Illness Prevention Program A system for ensuring that employees comply with safe and healthy work practices. The program should involve communicating in a form readily understandable by all affected employees on matters relating to occupational safety and health.
Laser Safety Plan* A plan to reduce the risk of injuries associated with the use of lasers by establishing procedures for this type of work.
Radiation Protection Program Information regarding procedures and engineering controls that are based upon sound principles related to radiation protection. The goal of the program is to ensure that occupational doses and doses to members of the public are as low as is reasonably achievable.
Respiratory Protection Program A program to provide specific procedures for respirator use to protect the health of employees.

Sources: California State Auditor’s review of state and federal regulations.

* State and federal regulations do not require laser safety plans.

Engineering Controls, Safeguards, and Personal Protective Equipment

Engineering Control: A method of controlling occupational exposure to injurious materials or conditions, such as vapors, including by isolating or enclosing the hazard. An example in a laboratory can include a fume hood, which captures contaminated air and conducts it into the exhaust duct system.

Safeguard: A method of mitigating or preventing a specific danger such as the effects of exposure to chemicals or other hazardous materials. Examples in a laboratory can include eyewash stations, shower equipment, and fire extinguishers.

PPE: Personal gear designed to protect individuals from contact with chemical, physical, or other workplace hazards. Examples in a laboratory can include safety glasses, lab coats, respirators, and gloves.

Source: Federal regulations, state law and regulations, and information from the federal Office of Safety and Health Administration’s website.

In addition, state law requires CSU to provide and use safeguards that are reasonably adequate to render employment and places of employment safe. This may require that campuses fit their laboratories with equipment designed to prevent or mitigate exposure to hazardous materials. For example, as the text box shows, certain engineering controls, safeguards, and personal protective equipment (PPE) may be used in laboratories to reduce employees’ risk of exposure to hazardous materials.

Recent Health and Safety Concerns Regarding Two CSU Campuses

The Joint Legislative Audit Committee (Audit Committee) directed the California State Auditor (State Auditor) to review the health and safety compliance of four CSU campuses: California State University Channel Islands (Channel Islands); California State University, Sacramento (Sacramento); San Diego State University (San Diego); and Sonoma State University (Sonoma). The Audit Committee also directed the State Auditor to survey support technicians at all 23 campuses; we present the survey results in Appendix B. Incidents at two of the four campuses were of particular concern to the Audit Committee. Specifically, two incidents occurred at Sacramento, and a Sonoma employee sued Sonoma alleging, in part, retaliation when he complained about health and safety issues. These incidents have raised concerns among some legislative members about CSU’s efforts to oversee and regulate health and safety procedures on its campuses.

In one of the incidents, Sacramento notified the campus community in January 2017 that several drinking water sources on campus had tested positive for excess levels of lead. According to the notification, based on those testing results, Sacramento had turned off certain drinking water sources. A March 2017 student newspaper article indicated that Sacramento officials were made aware of the presence of lead in the drinking water sources in August 2016, after a professor and a group of colleagues and students began the testing in March 2016. An employee union and certain members of the Legislature expressed concern about an apparent 10‑month delay before Sacramento officials notified the campus community of the presence of lead in the drinking water sources. In Appendix A, we present a timeline of events related to the discovery of lead in the drinking water sources and the actions campus officials took in response to the discovery. This timeline shows that Sacramento responded to the discovery of lead in a manner that was appropriate and timely.

A separate incident at Sacramento resulted in students being exposed to harmful chemicals. According to Sacramento’s Office of the President’s incident report, which it based on an investigative report made by the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety, a poorly supported shelf in a recently remodeled laboratory resulted in a chemical spill in May 2016. One student’s feet were soaked with chemicals and another student was splashed on both feet and lower legs. The students evacuated the room, and five Sacramento employees participated in the spill cleanup. According to the incident report, the campus did not know the exact nature of the spilled chemicals at the time of the cleanup and did not identify the chemicals in broken bottles until the day after the spill. Employees involved in the cleanup have submitted claims to the CSU and have alleged suffering health problems as a result of their jobs at Sacramento.

Finally, an incident at Sonoma involved the campus’s alleged inadequate handling of complaints regarding health and safety. According to a student newspaper article, an employee identified the presence of lead‑based paint on a certain campus building in 2012 and raised concerns with his supervisor. However, the employee claimed that campus officials dismissed his recommendation on how to remove the substance, resulting in unnecessary health risks to students, employees, daycare children, and visitors. The same employee sued Sonoma in June 2014 claiming retaliation when he complained about asbestos‑related health and safety issues. According to the student newspaper article, in the employee’s lawsuit, he alleged that dangerous levels of asbestos dust travelled through ventilation systems in a building where faculty worked on campus and his supervisor ignored warnings regarding asbestos in the same building. The employee claimed that he was retaliated against when he complained about possible health and safety issues resulting from asbestos‑related remediation efforts. In March 2017, the jury awarded the employee nearly $388,000 to compensate him for lost income and damages for retalliation. With respect to the employee’s health and safety claims, the jury found partially in CSU’s favor and partially in the employee’s favor. According to the California Courts’ website, CSU’s appeal is pending.

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