How safe is it for students and faculty in the laboratories of San Diego State University? Not enough, concludes an April 24 report by California state auditor Elaine Howle blasting the school and three other state university outlets for failure to inspect safety devices, lack of documented user training, the absence of asbestos warnings, and faulty ventilation checks.
The report goes on to say that since 2012 SDSU has been fined a total of $17,600 by the county's air pollution control district, including $10,000 in 2015 after the agency discovered that "the campus installed and operated a gas turbine engine without submitting an application."
SDSU officials have long taken a pass on enforcing state laboratory safety requirements, auditors found, ranging from lack of ventilation inspections to failure to properly maintain so-called flushing stations to be used in case of chemical emergencies in the labs.
"Sacramento, San Diego, and Sonoma did not always conduct regular inspections of the working conditions of critical safeguards—safety equipment such as fire extinguishers, emergency eyewashes, and showers designed to mitigate or prevent individuals’ exposure to hazardous substances— as often as state regulations require," according to the report.
"San Diego allowed even more time to pass between flushes of its showers and eyewash stations than Sacramento: the average time between eyewash flushes was nearly nine months," per the audit.
"The director of facilities services at San Diego acknowledged that eyewashes and showers should be flushed monthly but stated that the flushes have occurred sporadically since the employee previously responsible for conducting them retired in early 2016."
"This timing aligns with our finding that between May 2016 and April 2017, San Diego did not flush three of the four shower and eyewash stations we reviewed," the document notes.
"Those same three showers had not been flushed since April 2017 when we observed them in October 2017, indicating that San Diego has inconsistently conducted the flushes for about 18 months despite the regulatory requirements."
Urges the document, "San Diego should immediately develop and implement a plan to ensure that it consistently completes its flushes of eyewashes and showers monthly as state regulations require."
In addition, SDSU was unable to show that the campus had enforced requirements for students and workers to don so-called personal protective equipment known as PPE when working near hazardous substances.
"Although San Diego campus officials explained that students were required to wear PPE in the classes we tested there, the responsible departments could not provide safety acknowledgment forms for selected students from four of the six classes we reviewed."
San Diego was also unable to show that the school's labs complied with state regulations requiring that "any campus engaged in the laboratory use of hazardous chemicals have a chemical hygiene plan, which specifies the operating procedures that laboratory workers must follow when using hazardous chemicals."
"San Diego had not assigned responsibility for the annual evaluations of its chemical plan at all and could not provide evidence that it had performed such evaluations," according to the audit.
"San Diego’s [Environmental Health & Safety] office’s associate director claimed that she had conducted the annual reviews during our audit period. However, she could not provide documentation of such reviews. She stated that the chemical officer and EH&S office will document the reviews in the future.
"The fact that the campuses lacked evidence that they had evaluated their chemical plans’ effectiveness is especially concerning given that two of the campuses have not fully updated their chemical plans in at least six years."
Exacerbating those risks, the auditors found, was SDSU's failure to verify that lab ventilitation equipment was functional. "San Diego’s associate vice president of business operations stated that due to limited resources, Facilities Services was unable to complete all of the scheduled inspections."
Notes the audit, "Without conducting regular inspections of air handler units, campuses risk that this critical ventilation equipment will not operate effectively, which could be detrimental to the health and safety of employees and students working in science buildings."
Says the audit, "San Diego should immediately develop and implement a plan to ensure that it consistently completes its inspections of air handler units at least annually."
When it came to student lab safety training, SDSU was also judged to be derelict. "Sonoma and San Diego have policies requiring their employees to provide students with health and safety training and to document those trainings; however, neither campus has a verification process to ensure that departments adhere to the policy.
"Both Channel Islands and San Diego asserted that their campuses had conducted these annual reviews; however, they were unable to produce evidence to support their claims."
Potential asbestos exposure was also a neglected concern, the report says. "Sacramento and San Diego did not always comply with the requirements to post warning signs at the entrance to mechanical rooms containing asbestos. When they fail to post required warning signs, the campuses increase the risk that their employees will expose themselves to asbestos, which can have significant health effects."
A March 29 response by California State University chancellor Timothy White accompanying the audit says, "We recognize that improvements need to be made and have already begun taking steps to address many of the recommendations." He added that CSU planned to "conduct health and safety audits at all of the campuses beginning in 2019."