Feds Reviewing Nev. State Asbestos Exposure Probe

December 20, 2010

The nation’s workplace safety agency is scrutinizing how Nevada handled a 2007 investigation into remodeling at the Flamingo Las Vegas, which exposed workers and, possibly, guests to dangerous airborne asbestos.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration notified Nevada OSHA of the investigation in late November. Feds are looking at whether Nevada OSHA went easy on the hotel to cover corporate liability for the workers’ exposure.

Chuck Gillenwater, the man whose complaint triggered the federal probe, also alleges the state agency failed to respond to his earlier complaint that the 2007 investigation had been inadequate, according to documents written by Joy Flack, who heads the new federal OSHA office in Las Vegas.

Flack sent notice of the fresh probe Nov. 19 to Donald Jayne, head of the state’s Department of Business and Industry.

On Nov. 22, she e-mailed more details to Nevada OSHA, which is part of Jayne’s department.

Flack declined to comment to the Review-Journal, which obtained copies of her letters from Steve Coffield, the state’s OSHA chief.

Neither state OSHA nor federal OSHA volunteered Gillenwater’s name, but the carpenter, who worked at the Flamingo in 2007 and now lives in Idaho, has been in sporadic contact with the newspaper, and he shared some of his documents.

“I don’t have a quote (comment) until the investigation is over and I read the results,” Gillenwater told the Review-Journal by e-mail in late November.

The hotel’s owner was not notified of the federal action, Caesars Entertainment spokeswoman Marybel Batjer told the newspaper. Caesars recently changed its name from Harrah’s Entertainment.

Gillenwater’s latest complaint questions, in part, how state OSHA handled his first complaint. When federal OSHA bounced the complaint back to Nevada, a state official closed it in June as invalid. That official, John Hutchison, was in effect reviewing his own 2007 decisions. Now supervisor of state OSHA inspectors in southern Nevada, Hutchison in 2007 was the inspector originally investigated the Flamingo.

Coffield, who is Hutchison’s boss, said in November he believes Hutchison acted appropriately in June, though the federal investigation will revisit that decision.

After the closure, Gillenwater took his concern to U.S. Rep. Walt Minnick, D-Idaho, whose inquiries got federal OSHA to revive its investigation of Gillenwater’s allegations.

Minnick’s office acknowledged taking on a “constituent matter” for Gillenwater, but wouldn’t elaborate. The congressman lost his November election, and his term ends Dec. 31.

David Michaels, assistant secretary for OSHA to the U.S. Labor Department, wrote to Minnick — in a letter Gillenwater provided to the Review-Journal — that the federal agency would investigate Gillenwater’s allegation, despite “inappropriate language” in e-mails from the carpenter to Michaels and other federal officials.

Michaels’ undated letter, which Minnick’s staff authenticated, also mentions that federal OSHA had the U.S. Department of Homeland Security check out Gillenwater, whose e-mails sometimes contain veiled threats and vulgarities.

Gillenwater’s main contention is that Nevada OSHA in 2007 understated the extent of Flamingo asbestos contamination, even though the agency upheld three safety violations. That was a year after a sister property, Harrah’s Las Vegas, did remodeling that entailed similar asbestos violations — 14 counts, grouped into four violations.

Some managers were involved in both projects, although the Flamingo used Roman Empire Development, a short-lived construction subsidiary of Harrah’s Entertainment, to do the work. Nevada OSHA chose not to classify the Flamingo’s errors as repeat violations, which can raise the fine.

Records show that Nevada OSHA focused solely on the release of friable — meaning easily crumbled — asbestos into the air when workers disturbed the old, flaky wrap on certain pipes in the ceilings of Flamingo guest rooms.

Last week, Hutchison said he closed Gillenwater’s first complaint because the carpenter had confused certain regulations, was vague in some details and gave a “disjointed” account.

But the Review-Journal reported that others who worked on the same Flamingo project have given accounts that largely match Gillenwater’s.

Gillenwater has two main contentions. The first is that workers also released noncrumbly asbestos into the air, which state OSHA did not address in 2007. Workers did so by violently breaking the asbestos-containing wallboard between guest rooms into smaller pieces for easier removal.

Gillenwater’s second contention is that workers also spread asbestos fibers outside the Flamingo’s containment zones, when they hauled demolition debris through the building out to trash bins. Three workers who gave their names for publication, agree with Gillenwater.

“Asbestos-containing materials (were) tracked into the employee dining area, kitchen bakery area and elevators,” according to a federal OSHA summary of the present complaint. So people — including the hotel’s maids, room services staff and possibly guests — who went near the “hot” work zones or the trash-removal route were also exposed , the complaint alleges.

Rewiring in guest room ceilings required electricians Steve Rich and Ken Roy to disturb flaking asbestos in old pipe wrap. But the men and their peers didn’t wear protective suits, so when they ate lunch in the Flamingo’s employee dining room, their dusty work clothes shed fibers in the air.

After OSHA stepped in, the hotel set up containment zones around the asbestos sites, and brought in specialized abatement workers.

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