The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Agency Shrugs Off Interior Dept. Worker Health Claims

by Brendan Coyne

Feb. 24, 2006 – In an investigation into claims that workplace conditions at the US Interior Department’s headquarters were making some workers sick, a federal agency said it found "several issues that could exacerbate health problems" but did not demand corrective actions.

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The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) instead offered recommendations and informational pamphlets and said it could not "causally link" the complaints to ongoing rehabilitation work.

NIOSH, a worker-safety oversight body within the Department of Labor, undertook the investigation at the prompting of an unnamed Interior Department employee, according to a February 2 report of the findings. Workers had complained of rashes, headaches, eye and throat irritation, and other health problems that occurred at work, but NIOSH said it was unable to verify that construction work on its building caused the ailments, as the workers complained it had.

In an open letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton last October, a group of headquarters employees wrote of their workplace: "Each day there are strong hazardous chemical odors, welding fumes, soot and other by-products" from extensive renovation work on the 70-year-old building. The unsigned letter said that "little is being done to address the problems" and requested help from Norton.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a progressive government-workers’ association, posted the letter to its website and has been working with the Interior headquarters employees to force a relocation of all the offices until the construction project is completed.

Among the findings of the NIOSH report, also obtained and released by PEER, are acknowledgments that the remodeling work has repeatedly exposed employees to chemical and other contaminants. Work on the building began in 2002 and is scheduled for completion in 2012.

Even though NIOSH said that "good practices are not being followed during the modernization," the agency said it did not find a direct link between workers’ health problems and contaminants settling in the building. The letter, which officially closed the investigation, was accompanied by guidelines for maintaining better indoor air quality.

Last April, the Environmental Protection Agency undertook a review of the Interior buildings indoor air quality and made several recommendations for air duct renovations and other measures aimed at correcting the poor air quality.

Officials with the General Services Administration, the agency overseeing the renovations, failed to correct the problem. According to the NIOSH findings, problems with pressure differences between the office and construction areas were not corrected, nor were several other ventilation issues NIOSH said would involve "relatively simple controls" like limiting back-and-forth travel between the office and renovation areas.

The NIOSH letter also noted that employee complaints have taken an extraordinarily long time to be addressed and that failed communication processes led workers and Interior Department managers alike to miss out on opportunities to learn about and deal with existing workplace health-and-safety issues and procedures.

In a statement seizing on the NIOSH letter, PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said: "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. 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."

No fines or other actions have been proposed to deal with air quality problems at the Interior Department headquarters.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

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This News Report originally appeared in the February 24, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Brendan Coyne is a contributing journalist.

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