Behind the Walls

The Environmental, Health & Safety Concerns During Construction


Nik Popli, News Editor

As you navigate your way to classes through crowded hallways with exposed low hanging wires and pipes dangling from the open ceiling without tiles, worried that something creepy will land on you or that you’ll slip and slide from the puddles of water in the Science and Humanities wing, or worse yet, become exposed to toxic environmental hazards of asbestos which put your health and safety at risk. The Saxon Scope spoke with Mandy Jolly, Construction Safety Inspector of Fairfax County Public Schools Design and Construction Services (FCPS D&C) about our community’s concerns now that we’re well into a major reconstruction of Langley HS.

There is a growing body of research which shows the link between a school’s environment, its building condition and a student’s ability to learn. The 21st Century School Fund and the U.S. Green Building Council’s Center for Green Schools recently stated, “We are consistently and persistently underinvesting in our nation’s schools.” In a study released by the two D.C. based non-profits which advocates for greater public investment in school facilities based on estimates that national spending on public school construction and maintenance is $46 billion lower than necessary each year to ensure safe and healthy facilities which house more than one sixth of the U.S. population each weekday. Safe air quality standards and adequate plumbing are major concerns cited in the report.

The federal government roughly contributes ten percent to operating budgets but nothing towards school construction or renovations. Fairfax County Public Schools maintain cost efficiency of school renovation and reconstruction with a 45 year renovation cycle as opposed to the recommended 25 year cycle, which is funded by municipal bonds; a form of long-term borrowing that spreads the cost of major capital improvements over many years. Langley HS reconstruction is slated to be completed by the beginning of the 2017-18 school year.

According to Jolly, the most challenging aspect of Langley’s renovation is “most definitely completing the work in a timely manner while making all the necessary accommodations to maintain a regular school day and environment. There is constant monitoring of the general contractor to make sure their work efforts do not disrupt the learning environment of the school. Another great challenge we regularly face in occupied renovations is moving the schools occupants around instructional space we have available. Through the use of mobile classroom trailers and solid phasing plans we are able to place students and staff in acceptable spaces while the new areas are constructed.”


Langley High School was built in 1965, when building materials containing asbestos were commonly used. Asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral, becomes a serious health hazard when it is damaged or disturbed and the fibers become airborne, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The asbestos crisis uncovered in Fairfax schools is not an isolated issue. As school buildings across the nation age and deteriorate, many other school districts will face similar problems. For example, three Huntington Beach, California, elementary schools closed in 2014 after officials discovered contractors had removed asbestos unsafely. Students at those schools were bussed to out-of-area schools while officials cleaned the facilities. While most returned to their own schools this year, some students are still waiting for abatement to end.

When asked about potential toxic exposure to asbestos in ceiling and floor tiles which has been a reported problem in many public schools throughout the nation, Jolly stated that “Asbestos in FCPS buildings is managed by the Office of Facilities Management. Asbestos-containing building materials (ACBMs) in each FCPS school were identified by inspections prior to 1989. These inspections are also made available to contractors prior to construction in order prevent inadvertent disturbance of ACBMs.

Most friable (ability for a material to become airborne) materials throughout the schools in Fairfax County have been abated. Most remaining ACBMs are non-friable (such as floor tile), meaning the asbestos fibers cannot readily become airborne unless extreme forces (grinding, abrading, etc) are applied to the material. Remaining ACBMs are regularly inspected by OFM and the conditions documented to ensure the remaining material is not delaminating. ACBMs that have not been removed are abated prior to renovation activities. Documents regarding asbestos identification, re-inspections, abatement and air tests are available in the Management Plan Book.”

Since most of the asbestos have been removed over the past month of construction, there is no need for panic. According to Langley Principal Mr. Fred Amico, “My assumption would be that when they abate asbestos, it would be clear.”


Another safety concern in schools built over 50 years ago is the presence of environmental toxins such as mold and airborne construction debris. “Currently there are no federal or state regulations for mold,” said Jolly. “FCPS has full time staff dedicated to the investigation and remediation of mold. As such, FCPS considers each occurrence on a case-by-case basis. If occupant health or safety is potentially impacted, the most conservative and efficient actions are taken to mitigate the hazard.”

Construction Debris:

She added that safety protocols are in place as “FCPS D&C conducts air testing events at all renovation project sites. Air testing is scheduled without the contractor’s knowledge, and therefore construction activities are not pre-determined or scheduled around events. Communal areas in the school are tested as well as classrooms, offices, areas adjacent to construction as well as control areas, and all are compared with the outside air. D&C monitors air for multiple constituents, including particulates (“airborne construction dust”). To date, the Langley HS project has not collected readings that exceed applicable regulatory limits…however, the reality is that some individuals have different or increased levels of sensitivities to certain allergens or environmental factors than others.

Although D&C conducts regular air testing events in order to monitor and maintain these environments, an individual may have a sensitivity threshold much lower than current air quality standards.”

So, if a building occupant has a complaint, they are encouraged to contact the school’s main office so that they may forward the concern to the appropriate D&C contact for immediate resolution.


When asked whether any students or teachers have been injured during school renovation projects, Jolly stated that “FCPS has nearly 27 million square feet of space with more than 200,000 daily users which means that there are frequent incidental accidents. The few accidents which occur at a school under construction are similar in nature to those on our other properties such as a trip or fall (such as in gravel, at a door threshold, in a parking lot, etc.).” She also stated that no FCPS schools required closure during construction due to health or safety concerns while acknowledging that, “FCPS D&C endeavors to maintain a safe and healthy learning environment for all staff and students.”

Leaking Water Pipes:

Parents, students and teachers have noticed the puddles of water in several school hallways which is disconcerting to safety. Jolly noted that, “many times a leaking pipe is not noticeable until the ceilings have been removed.

Depending upon the situation, my office will have the contractor perform the work or contact the Facilities Management Office for repairs. In fact, the replacement of this infrastructure is nearly 50% of the project, but people do not notice because it is concealed within the walls, ceiling and floors.”
“The hallways are certainly eerie and creepy,” said junior Devin Troung. “I’d be happy for the younger students to see the new building, though. It will be worth the wait and pain.”

Low Hanging Exposed Wires & Pipes:

Jolly states that “FCPS D&C adheres to OSHA requirements of no exposed electrical wires below eight feet. If wires below eight feet are noted, FCPS D&C notifies the electrical contractor for immediate correction. If for some reason someone notices a low hanging wire or pipe in an occupied area, please feel free to contact the main office so that they may forward the concern to the appropriate D&C contact.”

With regard to the missing ceiling tiles, Mr. Amico revealed that “It’s so they have access to all the infrastructure up there, the HVAC, and wiring. I think it’s just probably the easiest thing to do to get them out of there so they can go work up in there. It’s the first thing they do in every building.”

So are we safe during Langley’s renovation? Rest assured that FCPS D&C has been successfully renovating facilities for many years. “Through experience and leadership we have overcome many challenges on past projects. This allows us to be better prepared to handle the challenges of our present projects,” says FCPS Construction Safety Inspector Mandy Jolly.

“All I can give is my personal opinion,” said Mr. Amico. “The county has on site people who do that and we go with what they say. I’m not a construction worker but they do have people on site. My assumption is that we’re safe. I’m just like you, I come in here every day. I don’t feel unsafe. And this crew seems, and I walk around a lot, very professional, the supervisor for the contractor seems to be very on the ball.”

“I’m indifferent,” said junior Hamed Safi. “I feel that there are no other options during construction, considering they also did this at TJ. They can’t close down the school during the week, so it makes sense.”


*This article was originally featured in the April 2016 Issue of The Saxon Scope