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Asbestos I: Learning The Inspection Trade

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Chicago--While most school employees savored the waning days of their summer vacation, a group of prospective school consultants was busy here touring boiler rooms and learning how to cut down on their liability.

They were future asbestos inspectors and management planners, drawn here by a five-day seminar that could, if passed, allow them to compete for school contracts worth millions of dollars nationwide.

Under the federal Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, passed in 1986, all U.S. schools must inspect for the cancer-causing substance and submit management plans for dealing with it to state authorities by this fall.

School officials have insisted, however, that too few qualified inspectors are available to meet the heavy demand. And last summer the Congress heeded their complaints, amending the law to allow schools that have made a "good-faith" effort to comply, but cannot meet the Oct. 12 deadline, to request an extention to May 9 from the state.

But the question of consultant supply and demand--and the quality of the training that inspectors and planners receive--still remains.

Under the federal law, all inspections and management plans, as well as all future removal activities, must be completed by persons who have passed a course accredited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Any high-school graduate who passes one of the three-day inspection courses offered in dozens of cities can become certified. And any inspector who passes an additional two-day seminar can become a management planner.

Although the federal regulations have required that states adopt their own rules--to be at least as stringent as the epa model--few states have exceeded the national minimum.

As a result, graduates of the course and seminar offered here in August by the Midwest Asbestos Information Center are legally qualified to conduct inspections and make costly abatement recommendations in most U.S. schools.

The center is part of the University of Illinois at Chicago's school of public health, from which some of the course instructors were drawn.

The 36 students--including one public-school employee--were mainly from Illinois, where officials have adopted one of the most stringent asbestos codes in the country.

To be qualified in Illinois, candidates must have 6 months of asbestos-inspection experience or 18 months of experience in construction-project planning. Management planners must have at least a bachelor's degree in engineering, science, mathematics, or architecture.

A 'Reach-and-Touch Profession'

Many who gathered in the hotel conference room where much of the coursework was presented had a background in buildings and maintenance work and were employed by private consulting firms. But a few were prospective career-changers, and had little knowledge of structures.

On Monday, they were introduced to some of the course's major themes: how to carry out a proper inspection and how to minimize future legal liabilities.

After a short introduction and a lecture on the health effects of asbestos, the students were given a detailed overview of the inspection process. It included a series of slides showing common asbestos-containing materials, such as 9-inch square tiles and pipe insulation, and their likely locations in a school building.

The presentor was Dennis Cesarotti, the director of technical services and a senior health consultant for Aires Environmental Services Ltd., a local consulting firm. He emphasized to the students that their inspections had to be thorough.

This will include, he said, an intitial "walk-through" inspection, and then a second inspection to sample all suspected asbestos-containing materials.

"We are responsible for each and every room of a building, including crawl spaces, tunnels, and attics--all the 'geographically undesirable areas,"' Mr. Cesarotti said. "This is a reach-and-touch profession."

In some situations, he said, inspectors will be required to make close judgment calls. For instance, in trying to decide if an area's asbestos is "damaged" or "significantly damaged," an inspector will have to estimate what percentage of the surface has begun to crumble. If more than 10 percent is in bad condition, Mr. Cesarotti said, the asbestos is considered "significantly damaged."

Such distinctions, the consultant noted, are critical, for they will influence the management planner's decision on whether or not to recommend that school officials conduct a costly removal project. Schools with asbestos judged to be in better condition may only be required to conduct a maintenance program.

"This is the most boring profession in the world," he added. "If you try and rush through it, you will get burned."

Mr. Cesarotti also squelched some illusions about the lucrative nature of the work. "If you think you are going to get rich doing this," he said, "you've got too much competition."

A Sample Inspection

On Tuesday, the students had a chance to put some of their knowledge into practice on the campus of the university's school of public health. On a tour of the school's garage and mechanical room, they were asked to identify so-called "homogeneous areas"--those that contain similar building materials and could be tested for asbestos together.

For instance, if an entire ceiling was made out of the same type of tile, if would be "homogeneous." Similarly, each type of piping that ran through a room could also be considered homogeneous.

But while wandering through the half-lit basement room, filled with large air-conditioning, hot-water, and boiling units and pipes in at least six different colors and widths, many inexperienced students could not complete the task.

The students also discovered in their tour that blueprints of the room, which were supposed to help them locate pipes and the major heating and cooling units, were incomplete. Schools' blueprints, they were told, are also frequently incomplete, and many schools have no set of building plans at all.

Back in the classroom, R. Kent Cook, manager of the asbestos program in the Illinois Department of Public Health, offered sympathy and more bad news.

"You're going to spend the majority of your time in the boiler room," he said, noting that it takes him about eight hours to inspect 50,000 square feet. Then he named all the homogeneous areas the students had missed.

"The course itself doesn't prepare people enough," Mr. Cook said later in an interview. "I doubt that three, four, or even six months [of experience] may be enough."

Avoiding Liability

In addition to teaching the students how to inspect and write management plans, many instructors also stressed that consultants should take extraordinary steps to limit their future liability.

The best defense, they said, is to document everything you do. This may mean taking a labeled and dated picture of every sample or justifying in writing--and on film--a "damaged" or "significantly damaged" designation.

"What should you document?" asked Daniel Swartman, an associ4ate professor of law and public policy at the school of public health.

"Everything," a few students responded.

"I don't think I heard you," said Mr. Swartman, in a louder voice.

"Everything," the entire class yelled back in unison.

In a later session on protective clothing, Gail Brandys, the director of her own asbestos-consulting company, added a further liability to avoid: exposure to potentially lethal asbestos fibers.

Even a well-fitting mask may not entirely eliminate an inspector's risk, she said, urging the students to don special suits and buy a costly filtered mask. (See story on this page.)

Golden Opportunities?

But despite the recitation of possible legal and health threats--and Mr. Cesarotti's pointed reference to money--the seminar lecturers may have unintentionally left the impression that there are golden economic opportunties for some in this new field.

Mr. Cook of the public-health department, for example, told students that there is only one professional in his office--him--to do the work that 11 were doing a year ago. Most of these people, he said, were recruited by private firms, where they are now making "three or four times" their former wage. The rest, he added, were eliminated during a period of budget cuts.

Mr. Cook said he would be able to hire four new professionals during the coming fiscal year, but that he expects all of them to be recent college graduates.

"The state can't match what they offer in the private sector" for experienced workers, he said.

An Insider's View

Most of the students said they expected to do consulting work for public and private schools. A few of the experienced ones indicated that most of their clients were commercial real-estate owners, who seek professional help before they settle a transaction.

But a third group, which included Andrew Hogue, the assistant director of buildings and grounds for the Palatine, Ill., school district, said they took the seminar to help them oversee the work of outside consultants.

"Now I know what the inspectors are being trained for," said Mr. Hogue, promising that "once I get the inspection reports, I'm going to go over them real thoroughly."

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