Report faults Sonoma State University protection of students, staff from hazardous materials
Sonoma State University and three other California State University schools were cited this week by the state auditor for shortcomings in protecting students and staff members from hazardous materials used on their campuses.
The four campuses “did not completely comply with requirements related to the oversight of health and safety policies, training and the inspection of laboratory safety equipment,” State Auditor Elaine Howle said in a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders in a letter accompanying the 87-page report released Tuesday.
The audit, requested by Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, at the behest of a CSU employees union, also faulted the Chancellor’s Office that oversees the system of 23 campuses with nearly 480,000 students and 49,000 employees.
The chancellor’s failure to provide “strong oversight” led to increased health and safety risks throughout the CSU system, Howle’s letter said.
The four schools - including Sacramento State, San Diego State and Channel Islands state universities - had not reviewed their chemical safety plans for laboratory workers annually as required, the audit said, noting that Sonoma State’s six-year lapse was “especially troubling.”
SSU and the other campuses also were cited for failing to document required employee safety training, while three schools including SSU failed to conduct regular inspections of “critical safeguards” such as fire extinguishers, emergency eyewashes, showers and laboratory ?fume hoods.
The Rohnert Park campus, with about 9,400 students, failed to inspect any of the 17 fume hoods for more than three years, the audit said.
SSU President Judy Sakaki said the critique was embarrassing but contained no surprises, mainly because staff members had worked with the auditor’s team on campus.
The failings were “largely a matter of record-keeping,” she said, but admitted that “you never want to be behind in anything.”
For example, Sakaki said, SSU has been doing safety training “but we haven’t done great validation to point it out.”
“We can do better and we will do better to increase the safety of our employees and students,” she said. “We want to get it all right.”
Wood, a member of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, said in a statement his request for the inquiry “was driven by some extremely concerning events reported to me that involved worker exposure to hazardous and unsafe conditions, with some occurring on our own Sonoma State campus.”
Saying he was satisfied with the audit’s findings, Wood said that “unfortunately” means it validated his concerns and “those of the CSU staff who brought them to me.”
Gina Voight, president of the California State University Employees Union chapter at SSU, said she was “thrilled” by the audit.
The union, which represents nearly 16,000 CSU employees, has been raising health and safety issues at all 23 campuses for years but “nobody would listen,” Voight said.
“I’m happy to see it come to light,” she said. “I appreciate the level of depth they (the auditors) went to.”
Kim Harrington, chairwoman of the union’s legislative committee, said that CSU’s own auditors have noted health and safety problems for 20 years and gotten no action.
“Everything is about safety,” she said. “It was a total failure on the part of the ?chancellor’s office.
Ironically, Harrington said the audit was intended to show a contrast between Sonoma State and Sacramento State, “which we knew were in bad shape,” with the San Diego and Channel Islands campuses that were “supposed to have better practices.”
“They all came back bad,” she said.
Neil Jacklin, the CSU employees union president, said in a statement that the system is holding at least $2 billion in “outside accounts” that could have been used to assure the safety of students and employees.
“The problem is not from lack of funds,” he said.
The state needs to “hold CSU accountable” for disregarding health and safety issues and pass laws that “provide meaningful state oversight” of CSU’s operations and budget, Jacklin said.
The audit noted that the four campuses had paid $47,790 in state penalties for safety violations between 2012 and 2017, including $4,640 by SSU.
Also cited in the audit was the case of Thomas Sargent, a former SSU employee who was awarded nearly $388,000 last year by a jury that supported his whistleblower claim that he was forced from his job after raising concerns about asbestos in Stevenson Hall and other buildings.
The university was also ordered to pay more than $2.9 million in penalties for violations of occupational health and safety laws, with about a quarter of the amount - about $3,100 each - given to 231 employees who had worked in Stevenson Hall. The judgment is under appeal.
In a separate case, the university was fined nearly $8,600 by state occupational safety regulators for multiple violations in connection with removal of some athletic tracks containing asbestos and other issues.
You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @guykovner.