There’s an old, abandoned state mental hospital called the Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center in Dover, New York, about one and a half hours north of New York City. Everyone who lives in the area knows the stories about it being haunted. What few knew was that it was a site of real horrors for a number of workers in 2013.
A few days before Halloween, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration went to check out the old hospital complex − which was being transformed by Olivet Management into a college – after receiving a complaint.
What investigators found was pretty frightening: Workers were sweeping and scraping lead paint off the walls and cleaning up crumbling asbestos tile without using safe removal methods, such as wetting and vacuuming, and no one was wearing a respirator. Olivet, which was acting as its own general contractor, hadn’t informed the workers about the hazards. Dozens were potentially exposed to neurological damage from lead and to fatal lung disease from asbestos during the time the work was being done.
OSHA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the New York Asbestos Control Board worked together to stop work at the site, and OSHA issued twenty-four willful citations to Olivet with penalties totaling $2.3 million. As the Labor Department’s legal counsel for the region, we got involved when Olivet contested the citations and wanted to litigate.
Fortunately, this scary story has a positive ending. Working with OSHA, we reached a settlement with the employer, which is now known as Dover Greens LLC, to set the work conditions on the right path. Dover Greens will continue to transform the ruins of the Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center into a college and research center, but the project will be run by an experienced general contractor and monitored by an independent safety and health consultant. Subcontractors will be properly selected and trained and will follow a sitewide safety program.
All of the workers who may have been exposed to asbestos at the site will receive assistance. Notices are being given to the workers in English, Spanish and Korean about how they can receive compensation if they develop asbestosis later in life. Dover Greens accepted the entire $2.3 million penalty and will pay a portion of it over time, while the rest will be held to ensure that the settlement terms are met. We want to make sure that workers are not haunted by dangerous conditions long after their work has ended.