Washington, DC — The Interior Department has been exposing its headquarters workers to harmful chemical fumes, smoke and construction dust for years, according to a new federal health evaluation released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The evaluation concludes that poor indoor air quality practices in the massive Interior HQ Building reconstruction have prompted hundreds of complaints of headaches, nausea, asthma attacks and other ailments from employees.
The May 24, 2007 report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found –
- A decade-long reconstruction of the 70-year old Main Interior Building near the National Mall in Washington, D.C. is “intentionally operating” to expose “adjacent occupied areas” to hazardous pollutants;
- The reconstruction has “no effective IEQ [Indoor Environmental Quality] plan” and
- Employee “complaints of exposure” stem from “failure to design and maintain the renovation area under negative air pressure” which prevents fumes from entering the building ventilation system.
Days earlier, at a May 22, 2007 all-employee meeting in Interior HQ, Secretary Dirk Kempthorne assured Interior employees that he is personally committed to improving the health of Interior workplaces, saying that he would avoid a “business-as-usual” attitude on the topic: “There is nothing more important to me personally and to the Department’s mission than ensuring that your workplace is healthy and safe…”
“Secretary Kempthorne should either retract his recent statement on employee health or clean house of managers at his National Business Center who are badly misleading him as to the actual conditions inside his own headquarters,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that Interior did not relocate employees adjacent to reconstruction work, as other agencies do, in order to save money. “After three years of denial, Interior should finally admit that it has a very sick headquarters building and take appropriate steps to protect its workers who have been exposed too long to noxious fumes.”
This is the second NIOSH report in the past 15 months. A February 3, 2006 NIOSH report concluded that Interior was ignoring hundreds of health complaints from workers suffering the effects of chemical exposure, air-borne particles and smoke generated by the HQ modernization and that the agency was not following “good practices” to ensure indoor air quality. This latest NIOSH “health hazard evaluation” found that Interior had failed to comply with previous recommendations.
“If this is what NIOSH uncovered in a scheduled evaluation visit, imagine what it would have found in a surprise inspection,” Ruch added, pointing to employee reports that Interior tried to clean up worksites and halt activities that generated smoke or fumes leading up to the NIOSH site visit during the week of August 14, 2006. “The overseers of this reconstruction project are guilty of inexcusable disregard fro the health of their own co-workers.”
Interior also has yet to release a final version of an internal audit from this past February that discovered major safety, health and environmental hazards honeycombed throughout its HQ complex. In addition, the Interior Office of Inspector General is now surveying and interviewing thousands of employees as part of an investigation into persistent health and safety problems plaguing the department.