ServiceMaster says ozone generators ‘a necessary part’ of wildfire cleanup
Some workers for the Fort McMurray wildfire cleanup say they were exposed to harmful ozone gas and other unknown airborne contaminants while working for a restoration company called ServiceMaster at the beginning of June.You can read that story here: Fort McMurray wildfire cleanup crew says ozone machines made them sick.
CBC News obtained photos like this one of people in ServiceMaster T-shirts, who were allegedly working in Fort McMurray at the beginning of June. In some of the photos, people are not wearing gloves or masks. (Provided to CBC)
CBC News first contacted ServiceMaster about the allegations of ozone exposure, including claims that a man went to hospital, on Tuesday, June 14.
The company responded later that day with an email statement that did not address the specific allegations, but promised to investigate internally.
“The safety of our customers, franchises and those who perform work on our behalf is of our utmost concern. In the event we find there are specific allegations that might call these standards into question, we are committed to investigate and address those claims in an appropriate manner.” — ServiceMaster Restore Disaster Restoration
CBC News followed up with further interview requests. The company accepted that invitation on Thursday, June 16. Following is a transcript of the section of the interview that addressed ozone machines, with company spokesperson Alison Bishop and a colleague she introduced as “Nicole.” CBC was later told her name is Sondra Feltman, vice president, communications at ServiceMaster (CBC reporter Marion Warnica’s questions are in bold).
When it comes to the ozone machines, can you outline the training that you give to ServiceMaster supervisors and in turn to your on-the-ground teams in terms of using them on-site? Or maybe I should say, in this specific case. So these three sites: Ace Inn, Fort Mac Inn and the Powder Drive location — the block of condos. Can you walk me through the training that you folks gave to the ServiceMaster supervisors on the ground for using ozone machines?
Nicole (Sondra Feltman): “No. We did not verify the specifics on those locations, exactly what the training protocols were for those properties. And again, to that level of detail. What we can tell you is that the areas where the ozone machines are used are blocked off. We have signage warning our workers not to enter those areas. And no one works in those areas unless they have been cleared and properly trained and fitted with protective equipment. So that is the level of detail I have to offer as far as how we manage those job sites.
Can you tell me about the specific respirator that you provide to the workers who are working directly with those ozone machines? Is it a special respirator that protects them from ozone?
Alison Bishop: “Yes. It is a different mask and it’s fitted for each individual person working with those machines. And we test them before we even let them enter a room specifically to use that machine. They work directly with our safety person on site. And when we talked to them today, to confirm that, they did assure us that the individuals working with those machines were trained. And it’s also a situation where the people that volunteer to do that type of work, they are made aware of every aspect that goes into using these machines prior to it.”
Can you tell me the name of that respirator that you provide to them?
Bishop: I’ll have to get the specific name, but we can definitely find that out.
Can you tell me more specifics about what they told you they told the workers?
Bishop: Again we didn’t get into the details of the step-by-step of the conversations that they had with those workers. Are you looking for more detail around training on this specific machine?
Yes. Specifically about the ozone machines, yes.
Bishop: We’ll have to get back with that.
OK. And you’re saying that the workers who worked with the ozone machines actually volunteered to do it?
Bishop: Yes. It was a voluntary position.
And did they get paid extra?
Bishop: Oh, I don’t know about that.
To that effect, what is your response to two things (and I mentioned this in my emails to you). The idea that these machines were being used in occupied buildings, where people were. Which is my understanding, in some opinions of some experts and some credible articles that I’ve read — is not a safe practice. What is your response to that kind of information?
Bishop: ServiceMaster Restore is one of the experts in the disaster restoration industry. We’ve got years and years of experience in working in this. And using those type of machines is just a necessary part of some of the restoration efforts on individual properties. I can tell you that we follow all the necessary precautions and guidelines to ensure that not only the workers involved in using those machines, but anybody within a specific building, that their safety is considered. And we follow the precautions necessary to ensure that. To Nicole’s point earlier, we have signs wherever there is a machine to let people know that one — obviously we don’t want them to enter that room, but there’s signage around the entire area. In most cases those doors can be taped off. And there’s other precautions that we take around that. But I mean I’m not sure what other experts, what your source is for that, so.
Well I’m looking at the Environmental Protection Agency website for the U.S. government. And they have a section about ozone generators. And it says: “Ozone generators that are sold as air cleaners intentionally produce the gas ozone. Often the vendors of ozone generators make statements and distribute material that lead the public to believe that these devices are always safe and effective in controlling indoor air pollution. For almost a century, health professionals have refuted these claims. Some vendors suggest that these devices have been approved by the federal government for use in occupied spaces. To the contrary, no agency of the federal government has approved these devices for use in occupied spaces.”
And so what I’ve been hearing, the information that’s been provided to me, is that what they would do is they’d put the ozone generator in the room, they would close the door, put the sign on “do not enter” and then they’d walk a couple doors down and have their masks off and talk to friends or whatever, and/or put another ozone generator in the next room. And people were still walking in the hallways, they were still staying in these buildings. And it’s my understanding from talking to experts in restoration is that no one should be in a building where ozone is happening. And that some of these machines have timers on them so that you don’t even turn them on until you’re outside the building. What is your response to that information?
Feltman: I think at this point you’re speaking to a level of detail that quite honestly Alison and I don’t have firsthand knowledge of. So I don’t think we can comment.
Just about the workers who are using them in an occupied space?
Bishop: Your question was on what you just read. I feel like you’re asking us about what you just read from the EPA and the actual science on it.
Well, I’m more so asking about best practices in the industry. So it’s my understanding that the best practice is that ozone machines not be used in buildings that are occupied by people. And the information that was provided to me was that the machines were used in buildings where people were walking around. And the rooms may have been sealed off, but it’s a shared filtration system right? Like in a hotel, which is where this was being used, or in a condo unit, the ventilation systems are shared right? So it would be difficult to seal off that room completely.
So I’m just asking about that. Is it your understanding that that was what was happening? Is that a best practice for ServiceMaster? Or were the workers just unaware of these best practices and rules for using ozone machines in buildings?
Feltman: I can’t confirm how, the degree to which other people may or not have been present. With any specifics that you have sort of alluded to. I’m not prepared to comment on that.
OK. What of the report that there was a gentleman who had been working with these ozone machines who had a seizure three days after using them? And doing things like that, where he would seal a room off then go into the next room and not have his respirator on and be talking to a friend or something. And then had a seizure and went to hospital. Have you been able to speak to your team on the ground about that?
Bishop: We did speak to them. And they were on site. From our understanding, he did go to the hospital. He was cleared. It was not tied back to him working specifically on an ozone machine. We talked to them about the way he was fitted for his mask. They ensured that he one, could not smell any of the ozone. And that’s one of the tests they do prior to entering the rooms. And he was cleared to come back to work from the doctors.
Did the doctors, they were able to trace the cause then to something else?
Bishop: We don’t have the hospital report and I’m not sure if the gentleman shared it specifically with our workers.
What about information that the doctors weren’t able to find a definitive cause, and that he’s never had a seizure before in his life and had never worked with ozone before in his life?
Feltman: We can’t speculate as to medical diagnoses that we don’t have records for so.
Bishop: And we’re not doctors.
Fair. That’s totally fair. I just wanted to make sure there wasn’t a documented, ‘actually the seizure was caused by X.’
Feltman: We have not seen anything or been made aware of anything.
[ A question about the individual’s name has been excluded for privacy reasons. ]
Feltman: We didn’t confirm the name, but we know that it was an individual.
Have you added additional staffing or trainers since some of this information came to light? Have you changed anything that you’re doing in Fort McMurray, since you started looking into this information — as you mentioned you would?
Feltman: I think yes. We’re always mindful of safety and the importance of it. It is for our employees and our customers and contractors and so forth. And while our teams have daily safety meetings, we have continued to stress the importance of those. We have talked with leaders there on the site to make sure that they understand the importance. And they’ve given us good feedback as to just the value that they place on that as well. So to that extent yes.
The company that was overseeing these three sites is the Abbotsford ServiceMaster — is that correct?
Feltman: No, it’s ServiceMaster Fraser Valley. I believe they are out of Abbotsford.
OK. So it is the B.C. team. So ServiceMaster Fraser Valley?
And are you aware of whether or not that particular branch of ServiceMaster has experience using ozone machines on other sites? Do you have reference of this?
Feltman: I don’t have specific information about past practices with, in similar situations, but I’d be glad to check on that.
OK. So that’s not necessarily something you look for when you’re deciding which branch of ServiceMaster would respond to a disaster like this?
Feltman: We certainly would look at their capabilities and their training and their ability to respond. I mean these are trained professionals who have a history of providing disaster restoration services in fire, mould, water damage. And have extensive experience in that. But I believe your question was more around the specifics. Which I certainly, I didn’t ask specifically about a specific piece of equipment.
I’d like to know that, if this is their first time at a site using ozone machines. Is that something you check, if a ServiceMaster branch that you’re going to send somewhere has experience in dealing with a disaster response like that. Like a wildfire, industrial fire. And I guess right now you don’t know. Which is fine.
And then my second question would be, what kind of records do you have of the training that the supervisors who are on the ground, supervising the workers and training the workers? Do you have records of their training for using ozone machines, and if you can provide me those details.
Bishop: We’ll have to check on that too.
It is my understanding — just to be clear, you guys mentioned — there were supervisors from ServiceMaster who were showing people how to use these. That’s my understanding as well. But I just wonder in terms of background, how these folks learned how to use them.
Feltman: Are you asking about their training and certification, is that what you’re asking for?
Right, specifically using ozone machines.
CBC News obtained photos like this one of ozone work at a Fort McMurray work site. The man in this photo is wearing a respirator. (Provided to CBC)
Bishop said she would send a reply with some of the information the company could not provide during the interview, including a copy of their safety protocols for Fort McMurray work sites, the name of the special respirator provided to workers who used ozone, records of ServiceMaster Fraser Valley’s experience or certification for using ozone machines and the date when ServiceMaster Canada’s director flew from Toronto to Fort McMurray to investigate.
The company responded three days later with the following email statement:
“As we’ve previously communicated, our franchisees are highly trained and experienced, and have safely and effectively provided services to those affected by the Ft. McMurray disaster. We’re honored that we’ve been able to help the community begin the long process of rebuilding and returning to their homes.”