Washington, DC — The U.S. Department of Interior is not responding to hundreds of health complaints from workers suffering the effects of chemical fumes, air-borne particles and smoke generated by the massive modernization of its Washington, D.C. headquarters building, according to an investigation by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health that was released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Due to Interior’s failure to follow “good practices,” NIOSH found headquarters workers are being exposed to noxious odors and other releases that “could exacerbate health problems or interfere with…prompt evaluation.”
Beginning in 2002 and continuing until 2012, the nearly 70-year old Interior headquarters building in Washington, D.C., is being gutted and renovated wing-by-wing. To save costs, however, the neighboring wings of the building remain occupied by an estimated 2,000 agency employees and contract workers while demolition and reconstruction continues in the second of the building’s six main wings.
Dated February 3, 2006, the NIOSH Health Hazard Evaluation (obtained by PEER directly from NIOSH) was prompted by “a confidential employee request” filed back in June 2005. NIOSH, an arm of the Department of Health and Human Services, recommended that Interior immediately begin –
- Complying with basic ventilation and other guidelines for maintaining healthy indoor air quality during renovation;
- Responding promptly to worker health complaints; and
- Opening reliable lines of communication on safety and health issues.
Transmitted to Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett (among others), the NIOSH evaluation also requests that the evaluation itself be posted “for 30 days at or near areas of affected employees.” Despite a requirement that the NIOSH findings be posted or mailed to all affected employees, this evaluation has still not been distributed to Interior HQ staff.
Since the project began, work-related sick calls to the Interior “Health Unit” more than tripled, according to agency figures obtained by PEER under the Freedom of Information Act, from 49 such visits in 2001 to 154 visits in 2002. These sick calls have remained at elevated levels ever since, even though many employees have stopped reporting problems out of frustration.
“The basic problem is that Interior did not budget enough money to do this modernization properly, deciding it would be cheaper to put the health of its own people at risk,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “By not relocating its entire headquarters for the duration of this construction, Interior staff and contractors are condemned to suffer through crippling asthma attacks, blinding headaches and a host of other health problems.”
PEER is working with Interior employees to relocate all offices at risk from the construction work, secure independent health assessments for all potentially affected workers and obtain reimbursement for lost sick leave and medical bills.