Labour Department probes HKU over air-quality complaints at new campus

Labour department reviews whether regulations violated after staff says furniture made them ill

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 August, 2012, 2:46am

The Labour Department is investigating whether University of Hong Kong violated workplace safety regulations after high formaldehyde levels in new office furniture was blamed for making numerous employees ill.

A department spokeswoman confirmed yesterday that it launched the inquiry after the South China Morning Post revealed the problem of formaldehyde at three new buildings on the Centennial Campus.

"Staff were sent to measure the levels of formaldehyde after media coverage," the spokeswoman said. "We will decide if there's a violation of law and recommendations will be given to the university."

The Factories and Industrial Undertakings Ordinance requires employers and building owners to take all reasonable steps to ensure the health and safety of a workplace. Those who break the law face fines of up to HK$500,000.

If found to have ignored health concerns, they can also face up to six month in prison.

The Post reported last week that employees began to complain about skin rashes, headaches, irritated eyes, sore throats and diarrhoea, shortly after being relocated to the new campus two to three months ago.

One department was so severely affected that half of its staff saw a doctor. Some staff asked to be allowed to work from home.

Work is still being done on parts of the campus as contractors rush to finish it before the new semester begins.

While the university has conducted air-quality tests and taken steps to treat the furniture suspected of causing the problems, academic staff and an environmental experts have criticised it for moving people in during construction and withholding internal test results from the public.

All furniture used in the building was required by contract to meet international standards. But some of the test findings, which were seen by the Post yesterday, showed formaldehyde levels of 0.09 to 3.87 parts per million (ppm) in and around the new furniture - far above guidelines set by United States and German regulators.

Of the 12 samples collected by the university's consultant, nine exceeded the US benchmark of between 0.09 and 0.21ppm. All exceeded the German standard of 0.07ppm. If the mainland's less stringent standard of 0.5ppm was used, seven samples still would have failed.

Dr Yau Yiu-hung, an indoor-air-quality specialist at the Open University of Hong Kong, said such levels are unacceptable.

"Some people may not have symptoms of sickness right away, but they will be suffering in the long term," Yau said. "The [formaldehyde] emissions won't dissipate for nine months."

Formaldehyde was not the only potential health hazard found on the new campus. Late last Wednesday, the university's pro-vice-chancellor, Dr John Malpas, sent out an e-mail saying legionella bacteria had been found in water samples.

University spokesman Henry Ho said all people who reported illness had been informed about the air-quality-test results and the university had no plan to detail where it discovered the problematic water samples.