Aspen crews likely exposed to asbestos |

Aspen crews likely exposed to asbestos

Charles Agar
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

ASPEN ” Taking chances is part of a rescuer’s job, but local law enforcement, fire and ambulance crews responding to a call of a gravely injured worker at the Aspen Middle School demolition site on Wednesday faced a unique threat: asbestos exposure.

A Denver man, Juan Ruiz, 29, was killed when a free-standing cinder-block wall fell on him.

Ruiz was part of a Denver crew doing demolition and removing vermiculite, a naturally-occurring mineral that in some cases contains asbestos and has been linked to lung disease, according to school officials.

When the call went out at 9:20 a.m., three Pitkin County sheriff’s deputies, two Aspen Police officers, three Aspen Ambulance crew members and two firefighters responded.

Rescuers trying to reach Ruiz rushed into a plastic-draped construction zone where crews from ESA of Denver were removing the material.

Pitkin County Sheriff’s Investigator Ron Ryan said rescuers were first concerned that another wall might fall at the demolition site, then responders noticed that construction workers wore disposable protective suits and breathing masks.

“We’re prepared for these types of scenarios,” Ryan said of potential hazards at an incident. “By the time we were into it, we saw that it was a possibly hazardous situation.”

Based on information from the construction crews, however, Ryan said rescuers knew the site posed little risk of serious asbestos exposure in the short term, and rescuers went to work trying to help the injured man.

Deputy Adam Crider, who ran in and out of the contaminated site to retrieve supplies, said he was coughing after the incident, but believed it was the effect of concrete dust in the air.

“The guys in paper suits and aspirators surprised us,” said Aspen officer Joe Holman. “But once you’re in it, you’re in it.”

The priority was the victim and the structural safety on the site, Holman said.

He saw a doctor the day after the exposure and filled out a workman’s comp form, as did other responders, but Holman said he wasn’t worried.

Lee Cassin, the city’s environmental health director, said that the vermiculite at the school site probably was less harmful than straight asbestos, such as the kind of material commonly wrapped around water pipes in older buildings.

Filling out an injury report is standard procedure, Ryan said. When an officer or a deputy is pricked by a used hypodermic needle during a search, for example, or comes in contact with some kind of human biological fluid, they document it, Ryan said.

Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor said filing a report and any following-day doctor visit for officers was just in case of any future health problem. Pryor said the city’s risk management department closely studies on-the-job hazards.

Bumps and bruises from breaking up bar fights or dealing with someone resisting arrest is common in police work in Aspen, Pryor said.

“We live in an environment, however, where there isn’t so much of that,” Pryor said.

Rebecca Doane, human resources director with the city of Aspen, oversees risk management and said reports and follow-ups to incidents are standard procedure, especially in an unusual case of officer exposure to asbestos.

City officials do anything they can to prevent injuries, and city officers will be taken care of in the wake of exposure at the school, Doane said.

But danger is part of the first-responder business, she added.

“Are we going to tell them not to go into a burning building?” Doane said. “The nature of their job is dangerous.”

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