Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Capitol (Asbestos) Crimes

The last few weeks have been kind of busy, so I passed up this story. It's not a completely unusual story, except for few details.

Workers who work in century-old steam tunnels are exposed the the threat of cave-in and lots of crumbling, cancer-causing asbestos. The employer, although well aware of the hazards, refuses to do anything about it.

You can read similar stories almost every week around the country, but there's one thing "special" about this situation.

The workplace: The United States Capitol.

The employer: The Architect of the Capitol.

NOTE: I am about to say something good about Republicans.

Until the Republican takeover of the Congress in 1994, congressional employees were not covered by OSHA, despite the fact that they do the same maintenance and construction jobs that private sector employees do, and despite the fact that even white-collar congressional employees suffer from exposure to asbestos, poor indoor air quality and ergonomic hazards.

The new Republican Congress decided this was unfair; Congressional employees should be covered by OSHA standards, and their employers should be forced to comply with OSHA standards -- that includes Senators, Congressmen and the Architect of the Capitol. The Congressional Accountability Act was passed and the Congressional Office of Compliance was created to monitor safety conditions. This was, of course, a good thing, even if the motive wasn't entirely pure. The new Republican majority figured that if Congressmen and Senators had to comply with stupid OSHA regulations, that would give them even more incentive to weaken or even abolish the agency.

But there were some unintended conseqences: real hazards are being found. At the beginning of March, the OOC filed its first occupational safety and health complaint against the office of the Architect of the Capitol, "warning that the agency is allowing employees to operate in dangerous, rotting tunnels that run under the Capitol complex.
"The miles of tunnels are in such a dilapidated state that they are subject to cave-ins that could trap and injure employees who are working in them, according to Carl Goldman, executive director of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 26, and Nan Ernst, a representative for the union local 2910 at the Library of Congress.

“Some of the tunnels are 100 years old,” Ernst said. “Those who do the maintenance on the pipes are subject to injury. They have no unions there to protect them. We are concerned about our co-workers there being subjected to those conditions.”

She added that in addition to the potential for cave-ins, the tunnels are lined with carcinogenic asbestos.
The complaint was filed before a hearing officer, requesting an order mandating the correction of the violation because the Architect of Capitol failed to respond to a OOC citation in 2000 for failing to maintain the aging infrastructure.

The Architect of the Capital finally admitted to an unhappy Senate Committee that there was an asbestos problem and that workers had only recently been giving respirators.
Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman yesterday admitted that he did not do enough to protect workers in crumbling asbestos-lined utility tunnels.

At a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, the panel’s ranking member, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), angrily told Hantman, “We knew there was asbestos, we knew that it was hazardous … and literally waited years before we provided safety devices for these workers to protect them. How can we explain that to the workers and their families?”

Hantman conceded, “We have ongoing inspections going — but clearly they were not adequate.”

“That is cold comfort,” Durbin retorted. "We have done a great disservice to these workers’ families. I want to say to you point blank, if you do not come forward with requests for life-safety measures, [such as] protective devices to protect these workers, then you are not doing your duty."