The federal agency responsible for worker safety fined the Buffalo Zoo more than $45,000 for putting employees at risk of lead and silica exposure during last year’s interior demolition work of the reptile house.
An OSHA official with knowledge of the investigation said an employee had stated during the probe that prior to the renovation work, some animals had gotten sick from exposure to lead, requiring emergency medical treatment. A former zoo official confirmed to News 4 Investigates that “there was a medical issue” several years ago but referred reporters to the zoo for more details.
The zoo admiration, led by CEO and president Norah Fletchall, refused numerous interviews requests with News 4 Investigates and failed to respond to several questions sent by email. In a prepared statement, the zoo disputed that animals had ever been harmed.
OSHA found that about 20 employees were put at risk of lead poisoning and silica exposure when zoo leaders asked them in February 2018 to begin demo work inside the reptile house. The employees were not provided proper gear or training, OSHA records state.
OSHA records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that the zoo has had a problem with lead contamination in the reptile house for years.
Zoo annual reports show that at least two lead paint abatement projects took place at the reptile house since 2005. This third project is a complete interior renovation.
Zoo leaders provided a two-sentence statement to News 4 Investigates that said: “The Buffalo Zoo has addressed lead through abatement, encapsulation, employee testing and training and most recently, full renovation of the Amphibian and Reptile Center. The Buffalo Zoo will continue to responsibly manage its campus for the safety of our guests, animals, and team members.”
As a result of the zoo’s refusal to answer questions, at least one Erie County legislator said he may ask zoo leadership to appear before the legislature to discuss the OSHA incident.
Erie County taxpayers provide significant funds to the zoo.
This year, the county provided the zoo with $1.5 million. The county also has three outstanding bonds for capital improvements at the zoo with annual debt payments totaling about $750,000.
“They need to answer these questions and like I said, I am disappointed that they haven’t,” said legislator Joe Lorigo, C-West Seneca.
The reptile house was built in 1942, more than three decades before the government banned lead paint. Any structures built before 1978 are presumed to have some lead paint inside and require most home and building renovations to be done safely to avoid exposing people to lead paint dust.
A former zoo official told News 4 Investigates that leadership at the time had agreed that the reptile house had to be renovated because of the lead exposure problems and mechanical and heating issues that made it difficult to manage the climate for the animals.
The $3.7 million renovation, which will house a Komodo dragon, snakes and frogs, received state and local funding, as well as private donations. It is expected to re-open some time this year.
The former zoo official did recalll a "medical issue" with at least one animal with lead exposure around 2005, which triggered an abatement project of the exhibits and public areas, and again around 2014, but the source could not remember the number of animals affected.
An OSHA official said that at least one employee told agency investigators that animals had to be chelated, a medical process used to remove toxic metals, like lead, from blood.
In an emailed statement, zoo officials disputed that animals got sick.
“The Buffalo Zoo can confirm that no animals were sick or died as a result of lead exposure,” the statement said.
Lead plagued reptile house
The zoo’s annual reports reveal that the reptile house has had a few problems with lead paint inside the reptile house over the years.
The 2005 annual report states that the reptile house was closed for six months of renovations to remove lead paint.
“… the Reptile House was ready to once again impress visitors with its exhibits—this time lead-free!” the report states.
“The renovation project was originally launched due to peeling lead paint, which threatened to become an animal hazard.”
The 2009 annual report states that the zoo completed lead abatement work again, this time on the second floor of the reptile house.
And the 2010 annual report, again, states that a “certified contractor completed lead paint abatement on the second floor of the Reptile House. It was then painted with a lead barrier acrylic membrane to contain any future flaking.”
Even after two projects to contain and remove lead in the reptile house, zoo officials discovered that lead paint dust still contaminated the building.
Beginning in February 2018, Buffalo Zoo administrators instructed about 20 employees to begin some initial demolition work inside the reptile house to save money before it hired a contractor for the renovation.
An employee filed a complaint with OSHA, which launched its investigation in April 2018. News 4 first reported about the investigation in April 2018.
OSHA documents state that employees used jackhammers and other tools to remove reptile cages and rock wall exhibits, and saws to remove painted benches and louvers in the attic. Workers also shoveled out the debris.
One document states that an employee told investigators that their work clothes were covered with so much debris that they “turned white” and that the contaminated clothing was laundered at home.
Federal investigators collected the debris and found “high percentages of crystalline silica and lead.”
OSHA records state that the zoo promptly halted the demo work when the employee, who is not named, noticed the amount of debris.
Previous material testing had shown that lead was present in various areas of the reptile house, even after renovations in 2005 and 2009.
OSHA documents state that the zoo tested for lead in the reptile house in 2014 and again in 2017. Both times samples came back positive for lead. In fact, the testing in 2014 found that 22 of the 25 wipe samples contained lead.
As a result of the investigation, OSHA hit the zoo with 21 violations, including not providing training to employees in lead safe practices, failing to monitor the demo work for potential exposure to contaminants, failing to provide workers with proper respirators and medical testing.
Initially, the zoo was fined $91,465. But the fines dropped by about half after the zoo appealed.
OSHA officials ruled that zoo leaders did not willfully violate the rules because the zoo experienced turnover at several key positions around the time of the demo work, including the CEO and its director of facilities.
OSHA documents state that current management personnel were neither aware of the requirements of the OSHA lead in construction standard or the actual locations of lead paint and dust.
Zoo refuses to answer questions
News 4 Investigates posed questions to zoo officials over a period of two weeks to seek comment. We asked how zoo leadership did not know that lead contamination still existed in the reptile house when testing in 2014 and 2017 came back positive for the toxic substance.
News 4 also asked if any employees required any medical treatment as a result of the work.
But the zoo refused to respond to these questions, and others.
Lorigo, the county legislator, said it is concerning that zoo leaders are refusing to provide basic details about the incident.
He said the zoo is also an educational facility, and zoo leaders could have taken advantage of an unfortunate problem to educate parents and children on the dangers of lead paint and dust in a county and city with the highest rates of lead poisoning cases among young children in the state.
“Erie County for the past several years we have been trying to fight the lead poisoning battle because it is such a huge problem in the City of Buffalo and elsewhere throughout the county,” he said.
“But we have this opportunity here that if animals were suffering from lead poisoning and you could use them as examples to show the dangers of it, maybe it is something they should have done. The fact that they are unwilling to have these conversations or discuss this publicly is problematic.”