VA employees tried to make managers consider asbestos danger but were dismissed, according to the workers’ union

CANANDAIGUA — Dozens of Canandaigua VA workers were exposed to the dangers of asbestos during the renovation of Building 36 for the Veterans Crisis Line, according to the workers’ union.

“We don’t know exactly who all was exposed, but between 34 and 38 individuals came forward,” said David Palmer, business representative for SEIU 200 United. Workers involved in the renovation project to enlarge the Crisis Line center included firefighters, police officers and those involved in construction, engineering and cleanup jobs, said Palmer.

VA workers with SEIU 200 United filed a complaint in April with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA responded with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and VA Inspector General’s office. A stop-work order was issued immediately.

OSHA investigators found four “serious violations” relating to asbestos: Not only were improper procedures being used, but VA management was not using competent staff to oversee the construction project, the union stated in a release. OSHA also found appropriate precautions were not being taken to keep potential asbestos exposure contained to the area under construction.

“Subsequent to OSHA findings several VA employees filed claims with Workman’s Compensation and VA Employee Health as potential exposure victims,” the union stated.

Before construction began earlier this year, workers raised concerns about potential asbestos exposure to VA patients and employees, the union said. Asbestos is known to be present above ceiling tiles and used as pipe insulation, based on previous asbestos studies conducted at the Canandaigua VA. According to the union, “front-line workers tried to make facilities management reconsider how the project was being handled but felt they were dismissed.”

In a statement provided to the Messenger, the Canandaigua VA responded Monday: “The medical center maintains the safety of its staff as top priority. All the employees that may have been in contact with asbestos have been encouraged to report to employee health to be evaluated for potential exposure. An abatement contractor and third party abatement monitoring firm has been retained to perform and oversee the abatement of the entire area where the asbestos was encountered. The medical center will continue to work with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ensure the safety of all patients and staff.”

Retired VA employee and veteran Wayne Thompson, chairman of the Finger Lakes Veterans Advocacy Council, said Monday the Messenger’s inquiry was the first he had heard of the problem.

“It sounds like a situation with potential serious ramifications for veterans, staff, and the Veterans Crisis Line. The FLVAC will be inquiring,” he said.

The union added: “Due to the nature of asbestos related illnesses often lacking acute symptoms despite having serious long-term health risks, workers who are active in their Union are concerned people who may have been exposed to the asbestos in Building 36 may not come forward due to fear of retaliation.”

A settlement agreement was signed for asbestos abatement in Building 36. OSHA inspectors will return in the next few weeks to ensure cleanup is being done properly, the union said. VA Police have been ordered to keep the area secured and additional Veterans Crisis Line Employees who were to be placed in Building 36 have now been permanently reassigned to Atlanta, Georgia. According to the union, building materials purchased for the project are now sitting unused.

Randell Johnson is acting director of the Veterans Crisis Line. He said Monday that no Crisis Line workers were affected by the renovation project or asbestos because the Crisis Line was not operating out of Building 36. Crisis line staff work in Building 3 and Building 37. Building 6 is now planned to be renovated for the new center, he said. That renovation is in the design phase.

Shane Kobaba, a VA facilities director, said the national Veterans Crisis Line has a total of 507 responders, with 200 of them to be in place in Atlanta by this November. The 307 will continue working from Canandaigua, he said. Kobaba said the opening of the new Crisis Line hub in Atlanta and the placement of the 200 responders was already planned and is not related to the asbestos-related work stoppage in Canandaigua. 

In 2015, an HBO documentary on the national Veterans Crisis Line at the Canandaigua VA won an Oscar — shedding light on the success of the hotline saving lives in the face of the alarming suicide rate among vets. Since then, investigations have revealed serious troubles with the Crisis Line.

Last month, the hotline's former director Greg Hughes said that more than one-third of calls to the hotline for troubled veterans were not being answered by front-line staffers because of poor work habits and other problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Some hotline workers handle fewer than five calls per day and leave before their shifts end, even as crisis calls have increased sharply in recent years, Hughes said in an internal email. He said that some crisis line staffers "spend very little time on the phone or engaged in assigned productive activity."

Coverage at the crisis line suffers "because we have staff who routinely request to leave early," he said.

An average of 35 to 40 percent of crisis calls received in May rolled over to back-up centers where workers have less training to deal with veterans' problems, said Hughes, who left his post in June, weeks after sending the emails.

The VA said in September it was expanding the hotline in Canandaigua and opening the new hub in Atlanta. “The agency also pledged to continue efforts to improve training, as it responds to a report by an internal watchdog that said crisis calls are routinely allowed to go into voicemail and callers do not always receive immediate assistance,” according to the Associated Press.

The crisis line dispatched emergency responders an average of 30 times a day last year and made 80,000 referrals to suicide prevention coordinators.

A February report by the VA's office of inspector general indicating that about 1 in 6 calls are redirected to backup centers when the crisis line is overloaded. Calls went to voicemail at some backup centers, including at least one center where staffers apparently were unaware there was a voicemail system, the report said.

The crisis hotline received more than 500,000 calls last year, 50 times the number it received in 2007, the hotline's first year of operation. The toll-free hotline number is 800-273-8255.

— Includes reporting by The Associated Press