The county hopes to have the building ready for employees to return soon after July 25. Sheriff Rick Staly hasn't yet stated whether he is willing to move them back in.
A firm hired by Flagler County to test the Flagler County Sheriff's Operations Center for problems that could be making employees sick has found no major issues with the building, and the county administration hopes to move evacuated employees back into it.
But the report leaves the symptoms of the more than 30 employees who've filed workers compensation claims blaming the building — built from a former hospital site — unexplained, noting that the firm isn't qualified to provide medical opinions.
The Sheriff's Office's employees, about 70 total, are currently working out of the former operations center on Justice Lane and at the county courthouse.
"Overall, I believe the report recommends some adjustments to the HVAC programing, minor changes in Sheriff’s staff cleaning practices and minor changes by the occupants," County Administrator Craig Coffey wrote in a July 12 email to county commissioners. "My understanding is that the building is deemed safe to occupy from all the tests we have conducted to date. Without any medical examination by the doctor the Sheriff has made available, it will be difficult to pursue any further testing by County, other than the one additional test planned," a radon test scheduled for the week of July 16.
The county is working with a mechanical engineer to adjust the HVAC system as suggested by the report and is scheduling a thorough cleaning.
"Pending some other major issue, IT and General Services has been advised to be prepared to relocate the Sheriff’s Office staff back in the building as soon as possible after July 25th," Coffey wrote. He clarified in a July 13 email that that he was not dictating to the sheriff when employees must be moved back into the building. "I simply indicated that I believe the building will be ready for re-occupancy after the 25th and that our team members in IT and General Services have been told be prepared to assist the Sheriff's staff to relocate any time after that date," he wrote.
The sheriff's response
Sheriff Rick Staly, speaking on Flagler Broadcasting's Free For All Friday program the morning of July 13, said he hadn't had a chance to read the full report issued by Engineering Systems Inc., or ESi. Therefore, he said, he didn't know if he's willing at this point to move his employees back into the building.
"What I do know is that I have to have a safe environment for my employees, and they also have to feel confident that that’s a good, safe environment for them," he said.
He said he'd scheduled a meeting with his executive staff and union representatives for later that morning.
"I know that in my union contract that I inherited, there is a page in there that says the sheriff is required to provide a safe work environment," Staly said. "They could all file a grievance."
He said the affected employees have already retained an Orlando-area attorney to represent them in workers compensation litigation against the Sheriff's Office's workers compensation carrier.
He does know that he's making one change: "Immediately when this started, fingers were pointed at my (custodial) employees, so I’m going to solve that" by hiring a contractor to handle custodial work in the coming fiscal year, Staly said. "All I’m doing is occupying that building, and I have nothing else to do with it."
County commissioners, he said, will be discussing the Operations Center during a meeting on July 16.
"The county commission hopefully will give their manager some direction on this," he said.
In an email send to Sheriff's Office employees at 2:36 p.m. July 13, Staly wrote:
"Good afternoon team,
"I just received the attached replacement of page 35 of the building report from ESI.
"I would also like to remind you that you do not work for the County. You work for the Office of the Sheriff. As I said in yesterday’s email I have not agreed to any move back in to the Operations Center. The staff, your PBA representatives and I are still reviewing the report. Anything you hear or read relating to Sheriff’s employees is not accurate and you should ignore it.
"It is also my understanding that today the WC attorney has started to receive employee medical records. Thank you for that. We are sending them to the county for review by ESI and to the doctor we have as a consultant.
"The County Commission has scheduled a workshop on Monday 7/16 at 9am at the EOC to discuss the report. I have authorized supervisors to allow you to take an early lunch to attend if you desire.
"I hope you have a great weekend and I’ll see you at the workshop."
According to the report issued July 12 by ESi, employees' reported symptoms include headaches, rashes, hives, watery eyes, fatigue, breathing issues and itchy skin.
ESi did find some issues with the building: Humidity in the building, according to the ESi report, is about 60% — higher than ideal, and "improved housekeeping and humidity control" is needed. There's a water-damaged area between the walk-in refrigerator and the walk-in cooler that should be fixed.
But ESi didn't find any major problems with mold, dust, contaminants or volatile organic compounds.
In the introduction to its report, ESi's Zdenek Hejzlar put the problem as follows: "The EPA term 'sick building syndrome' (SBS) is used to describe situations in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified. The complaints may be localized in a particular room or zone, or may be widespread throughout the building. In contrast, the term 'building related illness' (BRI) is used when symptoms of diagnosable illness are identified and can be attributed directly to airborne building contaminants. The affected employees reported complaints could be related to SBS. BRI requires medical evaluation of employees. As of the writing of this report ESi has received no information that would support BRI has been evaluated or established with respect to the operations center."
For its investigation, ESi treated the complaints as though they "were valid as if already verified through medical confirmation of BRI and the symptoms reported were potentially caused by the conditions in the building considering potential exposure routes including skin contact and inhalation."
ESi was made aware of several hypotheses about the building, including the notion that rotten wood soffits had not been replaced and that chemicals or contaminants from the old hospital could be leaking up through the floor. ESi determined that the soffits had been replaced.
There was moisture traveling through the slab, but that was common, according to the report, and "test results indicate that the soil under the former hospital building does not contain sufficient quantity of toxic compounds that are resulting in vapor intrusion and being released into the indoor environment."
ESi, testing for mold, found that none of the samples it tested showed mold growth or mold contamination.
"It is ESi’s opinion that the operations center is not adversely impacted with mold," the report states. "The results are representative of relatively low mold levels at the sheriff’s operations building. The mold levels in houses and other buildings that are frequented by employees could be significantly higher."
In addition, according to the report, "There was no evidence that would support the hypothesis that the building materials from the former hospital building contain toxic compounds (heavy metals) that are being released into the indoor environment of the building above normal background levels," and, as to dust, "The dust levels and different components of dust irritants in houses and other buildings that are frequented by the employees could be significantly higher."
Levels of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, were also low. "The VOC test results did not reveal any VOC levels in the building above currently accepted guidelines," the report states.
The County Commission will discuss the building at its workshop at 9 a.m. July 16 in the Emergency Operations Center behind the Government Services Building on State Road 100.