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Employees Exposed To Asbestos At VA Hospital

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An exclusive NewsChannel 5 Investigation reveals more problems for the VA hospital in Murfreesboro.

The hospital is still dealing with the fallout from performing thousands of colonoscopies with unsanitary equipment.

But now employees claim the hospital knowingly put their health at risk, and a federal investigation backs them up.

Dwight Statum has pictures of what he calls the VA's dirty secret. They show white asbestos covering pipes as insulation in basement areas of the hospital.

"They knew without a doubt that workplace was not safe," Statum said.

He knows the ins and outs of the massive VA Hospital in Murfreesboro. He worked there 30 years as an air conditioning mechanic.

"There's a good possibility that I will suffer some long term effects from being exposed to asbestos," Statum said.

Airborne asbestos causes cancer.

Statum says when he had to repair a pipe covered with asbestos, the VA did not give him or other employees protective clothing or a respirator.

"They knew full well what they were doing, but they didn't care. It was just go ahead and get the job done. We'll deal with the repercussions later," Statum said.

Statum took his pictures and documents to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA's investigation lasted months. Investigators cited the VA for six violations all concerning employees and asbestos.

OSHA says the VA failed to "determine employee exposure to asbestos" and "failed to notify employees of the location and quantity of asbestos."

Don Beard is responsible for workplace safety at the VA.

"You can improve any program," Beard said. "I think this gives us an opportunity to improve."

Investigative reporter Ben Hall asked, "Why wouldn't you notify employees about the location and presence of asbestos?"

Beard replied, "Our employees were aware, I think, there is asbestos here. It has been well known for a long time."

But if they knew, OSHA says the VA did not provide respirators or protective clothing, and it did not properly mark areas with asbestos so employees could aviod them.

"We've gotten better, but we're absolutely committed to our veterans health and to our employees health and safety," Beard said.

Newschannel 5 Investigates obtained an internal e-mail from 2003. An employee writes "I am officically requesting to be fitted and provided with a respirator."

Another e-mail a year later states "this asbestos thing is coming to a head .... we seem to be getting the run around from engineering on this subject."

Former employee Dwight Statum said, "They didn't do anything about it until they were pushed and received violations from OSHA."

Statum says he never received protective gear and says other employees who asked didn't either.

"As far as a respirator, I was never issued one. I was there 30 years and I did not have one when I left the hospital," he said.

Don Beard, who has been on the job two years, showed us new warning signs posted throughout the VA on doors leading to basements.

"This is an engineering space going into a subbasement. It's under lock and key and no one has access other than engineering personell," Beard said.

He says any employee going into certain basements will wear protective clothing and respirators until air quality tests show no dangerous asbestos levels.

Statum hopes his efforts pay off for the current employees at the VA. He has no plans to get tested for asbestos exposure because there is no cure.

"Why do I need to know right now whether I have it or not? It would be more than a death sentence that somebody would hand me. I choose not to know right now," Statum said.

The VA stresses patients at the hospital were never in areas with asbestos.

But the federal penalties have forced the hospital to make major changes for its employees.

The VA is doing air quality tests. Hospital officals say so far, no test has indicated problems with asbestos in any part of the VA.

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