California University Ordered to Pay $2.9 Million to Workers in Asbestos Lawsuit

A Sonoma County, California judge recently ordered Sonoma State University to pay workers at the school $2.9 million in damages for violating state occupational health and safety laws over the improper handling of asbestos. The case was brought by a whistleblower working at the university who claims that he was fired after bringing forth concerns that he and other employees were being exposed to toxic asbestos at various sites around campus.

As part of the judged order, one-quarter of the $2.9 million will go to 232 teachers, administrative assistants and other university employees who worked on site in Stevenson Hall between May 1, 2013 and March 6, 2015, an average of about $3,100 for each person. The remainder of the award will go to the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration as a civil fine for the defendant’s negligence.

The award comes after Sonoma State University spent an estimated $3.5 million on legal fees and was ordered to pay an additional $387,000 in March 2017 to the whistleblower who originally brought the complaint. The lead plaintiff’s lawsuit claims that faculty retaliated against him and forced him to resign after 24 years at the school for reporting the unsafe conditions.

“We are happy about the ruling,” Gina Voight, chapter president of the CSU employees union at Sonoma State and administrative coordinator of the department of kinesiology, told the Sonoma State Star. “We hope this will open the door for all 23 campuses to address asbestos problems as well as challenge Cal-OSHA’s outdated standards of what acceptable levels of asbestos are.”

Although an investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) found the air quality inside campus buildings was within the acceptable levels of 0.1 fiber per cubic centimeter, those benchmarks only apply to regulatory purposes and there is no acceptable level of asbestos exposure.

Asbestos is a flaky, white mineral once commonly used in a variety of industrial and commercial applications for its heat-resistant properties. Unfortunately, asbestos exposure is directly linked to developing mesothelioma, a rare and deadly form of cancer that causes tumors to grow in the thin lining of tissue surrounding the lungs or abdomen.

Despite knowing for decades about the serious risks associated with ingesting asbestos dust and fibers, many large corporations chose to continue using the material, which put millions of hardworking people around the country at risk for developing mesothelioma and other asbestos related health conditions. Common occupations associated with asbestos exposure include pipefitters, welders, drywall workers, and technicians working around nuclear facilities.

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