Mary-Louise Leidl approached the University of Victoria’s Sedgewick Building in late 2003 feeling a healthy balance of anxiety and optimism.
It was only natural for her to feel this way, with a sought-after job interview looming.
She stepped out of the December cold into the 1969-built building, but from the first rush of warm air that greeted her, Leidl could tell something was amiss.
“I noticed right away a musty smell. I remember standing there thinking: ‘Should I even continue with this? Should I go to the interview?'” she recalls. “I should’ve paid attention to that, in retrospect.”
The co-op student successfully got a job in the UVic communications department (UCom) in December 2003. She wrote press releases and articles for The Ring, the university’s newspaper.
But Leidl quickly gained more than just on-the-job work experience. Before the first work week was up, she developed health concerns, which she says were “completely out of my realm of experience.”
“I was feeling totally exhausted. I remember on the (first) Friday evening sleeping for 12 hours – I had never done that in my life,” Leidl says.
And the problems persisted as the job continued. “I was feeling unwell, feeling really run down – and unusually so.”
She brought her health concerns to the attention of her work and co-op supervisors, as well as her doctor. She asked her colleagues whether they had ever “experienced anything unusual working there” and got mixed answers. She even wrote to university president David Turpin expressing her concerns after her work experience ended.
“I have little in the way of concrete evidence that would show Sedgewick is in fact sick,” Leidl wrote to Turpin in July 2004. “What I do know for a fact is that that building has made me ill.”
Leidl was not alone. Since 2000 many UVic employees (the school won’t say exactly how many) have filed complaints about health concerns developed while working in Sedgewick. According to WorkSafeBC, UCom is where most of the serious health concerns originate.
A critical report from WorkSafeBC, released April 17, says the university has failed to protect the health and safety of its employees under the Workers Compensation Act (WCA) after high levels of mould and carbon dioxide were found in the Sedgewick building in late 2009.
“The employer has been receiving these complaints for a number of years, and, to date, has failed to fully investigate the known and unknown airborne contaminates,” wrote WorkSafeBC prevention officer Dawn Ianson.
CO2 levels inside were elevated – possibly due to turning off the building’s HVAC system, which pumps stale air out and fresh air in. It was permanently shut down in 1998. Mould spore counts were 31 times higher inside Sedgewick than outside.
These findings came in December 2009, when the university took air quality tests and fungi samples in Sedgewick for the first time.
Richard Piskor, the university’s director of occupational health, safety and the environment, says the delay came because it took nine years to identify similarities in the types of complaints the university was receiving.
“Our perception of it, at the time, was these were individual complaints. We certainly see, right at this point in time, there are a number of individuals that WorkSafeBC has identified who have common complaints,” he says. “Certainly by 2009, it was clear something needed to be done to address the complaints that we were hearing in Sedgewick.”
Some of the concerns about smell were dealt with – one was food rotting in the kitchen, another was a spill inside a vending machine – but Piskor acknowledges that complaints continued about persistent “earthy-type odours.”
A current UVic employee, who spoke to the News on the condition of anonymity, says the building smells like “a stale, moist, dirty basement.”
“I’ve never not noticed the smell, it’s always been there,” says the employee, who doesn’t work in Sedgewick.
She, too, would notice strange symptoms after spending time in the building.
“An hour or so after I would leave the building I would have a bit of a raw feeling in my throat, and sometimes just an irritation of a cough.”
Debilitating fatigue and headaches were the most common health effects reported by employees in Sedgewick, followed by chronic coughing, runny noses, bronchitis, asthma and itchy eyes, Ianson wrote in the WorkSafeBC report.
UVic took steps in the last three years to attempt to mitigate the problems. The crawlspace beneath the building was ground-sealed in 2010, and the HVAC system was cleaned and turned back on earlier this year. (The HVAC was initially turned off because “it was blowing cold air,” Piskor says.)
Brian Kapuscinski, project architect with KMP Architecture Inc., which conducted the crawlspace remediation, says there was no mould or standing water found underneath the building.
“We simply cleaned up the space, tied up some data wiring that was not secure … then lined the entire crawlspace with a PVC membrane,” he says. There were a couple spots that were damp, though, Kapuscinski says.
Ianson writes that, while the university has taken steps since 2009, “the area remains without adequate housekeeping and, in discussions with workers, … there remains chronic health/wellness concerns.”
WorkSafeBC only became aware of the issue in June 2011, when an employee fell ill and filed a claim, says spokesperson Donna Freeman.
Ianson issued four orders that the university must comply with by May 31.
The orders require UVic to ensure its workers’ safety by correcting the issues related to health and wellness complaints from Sedgewick employees. The university must conduct airborne sampling and produce a report with findings when complaints are lodged. It also must improve the reporting system for health and safety issues to ensure each one is investigated and addressed. Finally, UVic needs to tell WorkSafeBC what steps were taken to correct the WCA contraventions.
“We’ve done our utmost to address the situation as it’s come up,” Piskor says. “There are certainly things we can improve, and we are certainly moving forward to improve our processes.
“We have a compliance plan that we will be putting together over the next few weeks. And we will be engaging a consultant to go through and do this work,” he adds.
Leidl, who no longer works at the university, is hopeful that WorkSafeBC will ensure the health of employees still working in Sedgewick.
“If there’s a problem, you fix it. Why it was being swept under the carpet, I don’t know – it’s a bit of a mystery to me,” she says. “It’s been going on way too long. Personally I would like to see the building torn down. I don’t know if they can do anything other than that or find another place for staff to work.”