Washington, DC — The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has rejected a formal complaint by desperate U.S. Department of Interior workers seeking relief from acrid fumes, choking dust and nauseating odors produced by the massive modernization of the agency’s Washington, D.C. headquarters building, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Civil servants and contract employees working in Interior Headquarters cite a rise in asthma attacks, crippling headaches, unexplained skin rashes and other maladies from a poorly contained reconstruction operation in the midst of a building housing an estimated 2,000 employees.
The December 12, 2005 letter indicates that OSHA will “not conduct an inspection” due to “air monitoring [that] is being conducted by the General Services Administration” which is in charge of the modernization project. OSHA, an arm of the Labor Department, directs the employees to seek intervention from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a separate agency within the Department of Health and Human Services.
NIOSH, however, has no enforcement power. In fact, the Interior modernization project is in direct violation of recently issued NIOSH “Guidelines for Maintaining Acceptable Indoor Environmental Quality During Construction and Renovation Projects,” but there is no sanction for violations. Further, NIOSH conducted a health hazard evaluation of Interior Headquarters in 1999, three years before the modernization began, but Interior has yet to implement the 6-year old NIOSH recommendations from that evaluation.
“Interior employees who are concerned about their health are trying to work within the system but are rapidly running out of options,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Interior’s own manual declares that its policy is to ‘provide safe and healthful working conditions to protect employees and the visiting public’ but that policy appears to be a dead letter.”
Employees report that the General Services Administration air monitoring is usually conducted when welding and other construction work has ceased. Last summer, GSA sent out a “customer satisfaction” survey to Interior Headquarters employees but has yet to release survey results. PEER is seeking to obtain those survey results under the Freedom of Information Act.
Material Safety Data Sheets for the compounds being used in the modernization show multiple hazardous effects from direct human exposure. Agency documents released earlier this month by PEER show that workers have been exposed to those chemicals for many months due to porous worksite containment and a venting system that pumps noxious fumes directly into the building’s air intake.
“Last week, Interior had its gala Christmas party but, among the holiday well-wishing, no one dared ask Secretary Gale Norton for decent indoor air quality,” Ruch added. “This unfolding unjustifiable environmental assault on Interior’s own workforce is an apt metaphor for what Interior leadership is doing outside its headquarters.”