Mold Takes Breath Out Of State Labor Department

Wednesday, April 11th 2007, 7:48 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Mold is growing inside the building that houses the state Department of Labor, where state workers are experiencing severe allergy and respiratory problems.

Labor Commissioner Lloyd Fields said Wednesday he began looking for new office space after a private air quality study performed last month found active mold growth beneath wall coverings in his chief of staff's office and visible mold colonies elsewhere in the building.

``There's black mold around the window sills,'' said Fields, who was elected to the statewide office in November and began a four-year term in January.

The study by Envirotech Service Associates of Moore also found water stains in ceiling tiles on several floors of the four-story leased building, located about one mile north of the state Capitol, and elevated levels of carbon dioxide, indicating inadequate levels of fresh air in Labor Department offices.

Fields said he believes the air quality problems are responsible for worker complaints of allergic reactions and respiratory difficulties.

``I noticed it myself. I started coughing and I couldn't quit,'' Fields said. He said his respiratory issues ease when he is away from the office over a weekend but starts up again the following week.

``It's hard to say how much it affects performance,'' the labor commissioner said. He said employees occasionally take sick leave but it is not known whether air quality issues are entirely to blame.

The study recommends that the visible mold be removed, stained ceiling tiles be replaced and the building's heat and air conditioning duct work be cleaned and treated with a mold inhibitor.

Fields said it is ironic that the agency responsible for protecting Oklahomans at their workplace is looking for ways to protect its own workers. The agency employs about 80 people.

``No state worker should be expected to work with mold in their environment,'' he said. ``Any concentration of mold in the workplace is unacceptable.''

Fields said the California company that owns the building has offered to fix the mold problem, but the agency will still have to relocate during the remediation process.

``We can't be in the building while they're fixing the problem,'' he said. ``We're going to have to move out of that building. We're in the process of trying to find a new location.''

Fields said the mold problem is not new. Mold was originally detected in 1996 but only minor repairs were made and the visible mold was covered up.

``This should have been addressed a long time ago. It's not something that just occurred,'' he said.

The Labor Department leases about 18,000 square feet in the building and is not the sole tenant. Fields said the state's lease expires in October and that it currently pays about $15,000 a month for the space.

``And they're wanting to go up,'' Fields said. ``Hopefully we can get out of there.''

He said the agency is working with the Department of Central Services and the owners of other private offices to find new space.