In light of a health and safety report into the exposure of volatile organic compounds at Grenfell last fall, David Sturge says Memorial is accepting responsibility and being held accountable for the deficiencies outlined.
Grenfell’s health and safety manager said the report is considered an asset as administration and staff learn from past mistakes. He said transparency is important, especially when communicating with faculty, students and the public — all who use the facility.
“We are not claiming we did everything right here,” Sturge said. “There are definitely areas we could have improved upon, and we have outlined those in the report.”
Memorial University’s department of health and safety has determined, not only were the level of volatile organic compounds concerning, but it was a significant fire hazard.
Air quality reached hazardous levels, leaving a number of people at the university suffering ill effects on two occasions during the replacement of the gymnasium floor by a contractor last year. The health effects reported included nausea, dizziness, headaches and respiratory tract and eye irritation.
The building was evacuated, signs went up and a person monitored the area when odorous fumes propelled from the gymnasium into other parts of the building. The public access to the swimming pool was available at the time.
The project was shut down in October when this problem was detected. A new plan was put in place, and the project resumed later that month. However, again in November reports of people falling ill were reported. Issues were identified pertaining to the chemicals used and the ventilation system. The Memorial University Faculty Association questioned the response of Grenfell administration itself.
Sturge said many aspects of the report, which is available online, were as expected, but even the issue of flammability was a surprise to him. He said it was a particularly concerning discovery and a lesson for everybody in all aspects of their lives.
“We are glad it was picked up on now, rather than in the future something more significant happening related to the fire hazards,” he said. “When we identify these hazards after the fact, relief is definitely one word we can use that it wasn’t a bigger incident than it was, and nobody was hurt related to the fire risks associated with it.”
The hardwood floor was finished by a contractor using its own products. Sturge said Memorial’s focus is mostly on internal measures and practices only, and not the contractor. There were four main areas identified: material safety data sheets, ventilation, flammability hazards and project planning.
The solvent-based products used in the floor finishing process are classified as flammable. The levels present in the building after the application of the sealant coat were approaching five per cent of the lower flammability limit of the products.
“Therefore, the potential for a fire was high, and this was not identified in the hazard assessment, or in the planning phase of the project,” according to the report.
It is suggested there are less hazardous products available for floor finishing that are non-flammable and also less odorous. It should be required for future flooring projects at Memorial, the report suggests.
The report states material safety data sheets provided by the manufacturer’s website were not up to date and different than provided by the contractor. The manufacturer was contacted and the most recent version was provided.
Also, they are not workplace hazardous materials information system (WHMIS) compliant because ingredients do not have a Health Canada exemption number listed. This compliance has been verbally communicated.
The gym was not actively ventilated during and after application of the sealant coat, according to the report. It should have been identified as a necessary control measure during project planning and hazard assessment. Despite assertion of the contractor that the gym could not be ventilated during application, the product containers and data sheets indicated its requirement.
“Ventilating the space during application would have prevented the dissemination of the odours throughout the building,” the report states.
Also, the local exhaust ventilation rate and design used was insufficient to remove the contaminated air from the gym. Not only should it have been higher, but cross ventilated.
Thirdly, the local exhaust ventilation placed in the hallway should have been placed in the gym.
“By placing them in the hallway the contaminated air was drawn out of the gym into the building,” stated the report.
The planning phase of the project did not identify the hazards associated with using these products inside an occupied building. Staff from the St. John’s department — who has had experience in similar projects — could have been consulted, and less hazardous products should have been explored.
Sturge said the gym is finished and being utilized now. There are no ongoing concerns.
Air sampling afterwards showed the concentration of volatile organic compounds dropped significantly within 48-72 hours after application. They were not detected at after that time period. However, according to the report, odours continued to be emitted from the products used on the gym floor at concentrations lower than the detectable — contributing to the indoor air quality complaints received after application of both the sealant and the finish coats.