Renovation work on the second floor of Building Four caused dust and debris to contaminate space occupied by the community-care unit on the first floor
Today Building Four at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Leeds is shut.
Red crime-scene type plastic tapes warning of asbestos contamination flutter in the breeze. The windows are covered with plastic on the inside. A big dumpster sits empty under a chute running down from an upstairs window and windows are boarded up, signs that a major renovation project had been recently shut down.
Until two weeks ago the first floor had housed the VAs substance abuse program and community care center, but now the patients and staff members have been transferred over to crowded facilities at Building 20. Participants and staff were informed by administrators that they may have been exposed to high levels of lead and asbestos from dust and debris from an ongoing construction project. The VA at this point has offered to give the people affected blood tests, pulmonary tests, and x-rays.
Nelson Barnes, Assistant Area Director of the Occupational, Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) confirmed that there was an ongoing investigation of the situation at the medical center, but would not comment further pending the completion of testing.
Red tapes and a locked door bar entry to Building Four at the VA Medical Center in Leeds
The gutting of the second floor has been going on since October of last year. Workers evidently ran into asbestos around the pipes and in flooring materials. The upstairs had been the long-term care unit, and had been vacant for several years. The VA intended to convert it to a unit for the chronically mentally ill.
People in the two programs located downstairs had been complaining about the dust in the air for some time, but the message did not seem to get up through the layers of bureaucracy until quite recently when someone raised the level of protest and the Hospital Safety Officer, Edward Connearney did a site visit and tested the air quality.
The result of those tests triggered a belated decision to shut the building down. A local VA administration official said that a Freedom of Information request would have to be filed before they will release precise details about the air quality levels.
In several encounters with a reporter, staff members indicated they wanted to talk about the situation, but could not. They said the situation has freaked out many patients as well as staff.
The transfer of the unit is another blow to the highly thought of Community-Care program, once located in a beautiful building of its own on Pleasant Street in downtown Northampton.
Meanwhile, the medical centers administration quarters, once in the main building, now is in a quieter neighborhood of the hill with a floor of its own, a heavy glass door that shuts like an air-lock, and luxurious emerald-colored rugs and classy wood paneled offices and conference rooms.
Joanne Carney, director of public relations for the hospital, confirmed to downstreet.net
that the exposure had taken place and the hospital is broadening its effort to reach employees and participants who might have been exposed.
An investigation is also underway on why complaints from staff were sidetracked for so long. This latest incident comes in the wake of the earlier and more serious patient deaths which resulted in the conviction of one of the hospitals nurses.
Some of the questions that arise again is how well the VA administration in Leeds is managing its medical programs and buildings? Asbestos removal should have come first, and have been done by qualified personnel.
Residents told a reporter they felt sorry for the workers on the project, who didnt seem to know what they were doing, and werent wearing protective gear. They said also it should have come as no surprise to the VA that a project that gutted a second floor space could cause problems in a first floor program where there were people trying to compose a memo or hold a community meeting.