Prisoners Put in Harm’s Way through Asbestos Exposure

Eighteen people at the McNeil Island state prison in Washington State were forced by supervisors to remove asbestos-contaminated tile without taking the proper safety precautions or wearing protective equipment. Washington state Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) fined the prison $28,400 in July 2008 for the tile removal, which occurred in 2007. The officials with the prison argued that they did not believe that the Puget Sound Clean Air Act applied to the tile removal at the prison. The two prison supervisors in charge of the project were both certified for asbestos removal, but they did not follow the proper procedures to reduce the amount of asbestos dust released. Water should have been used to prevent dust from floating into the air, but this step did not occur during the tile removal. Consequently, the eight prisoners, eight Department of Corrections employees, and a flooring contractor’s crew were exposed to asbestos dust that rose into the air during the tile removal.

Inhalation of asbestos dust and fibers has been linked to several forms of lung cancer in humans, as well as a scarring of the lungs known as asbestosis . Many of the cancers caused by asbestos are rapidly fatal once they are diagnosed, usually decades after exposure. The risk for diseases to those who worked on the tile removal project at the prison was minimal according to the L&I report. The report noted that since there was a low amount of asbestos in the tiles and the glue holding them down, and the exposure was brief, complications from the asbestos exposure are not anticipated. The Department of Corrections (DOC) did not argue with the grounds of the L&I fine, but they did seek an appeal to reduce the severity of some of the charges and to allow some of the fine to be used to increase asbestos training and awareness for DOC supervisors and maintenance workers. Such training could prevent a similar situation from occurring again in the future.