Monday, July 05, 2004

Hide the Workers Evidence

Washington D.C. famously has no baseball team, and sometimes even politics gets boring. So the next best entertainment many Washingtonians turn their passions toward is pandamania.

For the first decade after I arrived in Washington over twenty-five years ago, Washingtonians were obsessed with the sexual (or at least procreative) lives of their two pandas (Ling Ling and Sing Sing...or Ding Ding – I can’t remember) residing at the National Zoo. Alas, our pandas failed to go forth and multiply. Eventually they ascended -- childless -- to that great bamboo forest in the sky.

Washington moved on – to new presidents, a new millennium (but still no baseball team ) – and new pandas – the living, breathing (and procreating) versions, as well as the multi-colored plexiglass statue version currently infesting the city (following the passing of the multi-colored plexiglass elephants and donkeys (You know, Washington D.C., politics… get it?) and the multi-colored plexiglass cows (or was it sheep...or camels?)that preceded them the donkeys, elephats and pandas.

But I digress. This is a workplace safety blog, so why go on and on about pandas?

Well, it seems that in January 2003, animals began mysteriously dying at the Washington National Zoo, including – our two beloved pandas. Yes, to paraphrase those sages of the silver screen, the pandas had ceased to be. They'd expired and gone to meet their maker. These were late pandas. Bereft of life, they rested in peace. They'd rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. These were ex-pandas.

What or who was to blame for this crime in the heart of the nation's capital? A mysterious tropical disease carried to Washington by an foreign diplomat from an exotic nation? Bioterrorism? Tourists failing to heed the “Do Not Feed The Animals” sign? Where was Tom Ridge ... or John Grisham when we needed them?

Turns out it was our own home-grown weapons of mass destruction -– rat poison left in the panda’s cages. These and other revelations eventually led to an investigation of the zoo, accusations of mismanagement and the eventual resignation of the director.

Hello? Is this about worker safety or panda safety? OSHA? Why am I reading this?

OK, OK, I’m getting there.

Now this in the Washington Post last week
Three National Zoo employees were dizzy and nauseated from exposure to rat poison left in the red panda yard. Before they received medical attention, they were told not to tell the ambulance crew what had happened or that they worked at the zoo.

The ambulance did not come into the zoo. Instead, the zoo workers, sickened last year, were driven to a Metro station to meet the vehicle. One employee was told to cover a zoo insignia with a jacket before going to the hospital.

Employees provided those accounts to an investigator from the Smithsonian Institution's inspector general's office, which was looking into the deaths of two red pandas that ate the rat poison in their yard in January 2003.

The inspector general's report says that when the zoo called D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services for help, it asked that the hazardous materials unit be "discreetly dispatched."
Why would they do that? The plot thickens:
The zoo called for help shortly after 1 p.m. Jan. 11, 2003, about four hours after a keeper found the dead pandas.
And why would the workers have gotten sick?
Most employees did not know that a pesticide contractor had buried poison pellets in the animals' yard the previous afternoon, according to the inspector general's report. Those workers on the scene that morning rushed to the enclosure, pulled the red pandas from public view and began probing the animals. They also looked down ratholes and combed the yard for BB pellets, rocks or other signs of what might have killed them.

By the time employees learned about the poison, some were feeling sick and having trouble breathing.
Sounds like a classic rith-to-know issue to me.
But, of course, the evil workers were probably to blame, according to the pesticide contractor:
The inspector general investigated the panda deaths after the pesticide contractor, denying any responsibility, alleged that the incident was a deliberate act of sabotage by some zoo employees who opposed killing rodents. The report said the allegation of sabotage "was not substantiated."

Laboratory tests showed that the pandas died after eating tiny pieces of the poison that apparently fell on the ground while the pellets were being buried
What a zoo.