It is hard to believe that a case like this could happen at a respected local university. Last year the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission found that a Virginia Commonwealth University professor was suffering from an incurable illness – silicosis – because he was exposed to hazardous dust at the school.
The real shock is that even after Rosenbaum’s diagnosis, VCU officials ignored advice from his doctor to warn staff and students about the dangers posed by hazardous silica dust.
Rosenbaum’s doctor was concerned because silicosis, a lung disease that can cause a serious shortness of breath, is a cumulative disease that can affect individuals who have been exposed to low levels of contaminated dust over an extended period of time.
As a result of the Commission’s ruling, Rosenbaum was awarded $211,800 in permanent disability benefits. Since being diagnosed with silicosis, Rosenbaum, a fine arts professor, has had to limit his work to classroom teaching, as he can no longer work in the studio around silica dust.
How much warning is enough?
The dust that led to Rosenbaum developing silicosis comes from a power used in the Fine Arts building to make clay. The silica dust can also be released when kilns are cleaned. Over time, inhalation of this silica dust can lead to excessive development of fibers in the lungs, which causes silicosis.
The dangers of silica dust in the workplace are well known. Silicosis is incurable, and is similar to other conditions caused by asbestos fibers and coal dust.
VCU contends that class instruction and safety instruction documents kept in classrooms and the studio of the affected Fine Arts building since Rosenbaum was diagnosed are sufficient to keep students and staff safe.
Although VCU officials maintain that the building is safe, several issues have been pointed out by those involved in the case:
- Staff members had taped plastic bags over the ventilation system to prevent the dust from entering other parts of the building. The ventilation system was intended to remove hazardous silica dust from the ceramics work area but could not to its intended job because it was covered. The bags apparently stayed in place for five years.
- VCU performed air quality tests only after removing the plastic bags on the ventilation system, so the quality of the air in the room before the bags were removed is unknown.
- The Virginia Department of Labor and Industry, which is responsible for overseeing workplace safety, never inspected the VCU building in question. Facilities management at the school maintains that they have their own experts so government inspections are not necessary.
- Staff and students testified that dust from the ceramics room seeped into hallways and other rooms and offices, leaving a dusty mist in the air and coating floors and walls.
- Staff claim that dust in the ceramics area was not properly wet-cleaned by janitors.
- In 2002 a wall was built between the kiln room and the glassworks department, possibly leaving the dust-producing kiln room without adequate ventilation.
- University officials claimed in a 2002 letter that the arts building ventilation system did not meet design specifications.
- Students are not required to use respirators in the clay-mixing room, where they can be exposed to silica dust.
Workplace injuries – either acute or from long-term exposure to hazards – can happen anywhere. If you would like to speak to an experienced Virginia workers’ compensation lawyer, please contact the attorneys at Dulaney, Lauer & Thomas to discuss your case for no cost or obligation.
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