Architect of Capitol Pulls Workers From Tunnels

Congressional pressure and rising health concerns have prompted the Architect of the Capitol (AoC) to remove 10 Capitol Hill tunnel workers – who claim to have been exposed to high levels of asbestos for years – from the tunnels and reassign them to other work stations.

The workers were transferred after U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., received information from occupational and environmental health physician Dr. Michael Harbut that the workers had signs of pulmonary and respiratory diseases. On April 9, Acting Architect Stephen Ayers announced that the workers would no longer work in the tunnels.

“The architect's decision to take action is a welcome one, but does little to excuse the many years of negligence that have cost these workers their health,” Murray said. “For far too long these workers were exposed to deadly concentrations of asbestos while the architect's office turned its back on their complaints.”

Murray Has Been Pushing for Worker Removal

Murray has been pushing for the removal of the tunnel workers since the problems were highlighted at a March 1 hearing, which she called and chaired. For years, the workers have complained about working in areas that allegedly were ridden with asbestos.

“The tunnels are a tough place to work,” said John Thayer, head of the tunnel crew, in his testimony during the hearing. “Temperatures get up to 160 degrees, big slabs of concrete fall from the ceilings and the cramped passages are thick with welding fumes, pulverized asbestos and concrete dust.”

In 2000, the Office of Compliance (OoC) filed a complaint detailing some 13,000 alleged health and safety violations in the tunnels. In February, OoC filed another complaint stating AoC knew there were numerous asbestos dangers but “effectively ignored ... many potentially life-threatening safety and health violations.”

AoC Changes its Tune

AoC had maintained that the workers were cleared by doctors to continue working in the tunnels. But in a recent statement, officials in the architect's office changed their tune.

“Upon receiving medical information on the workers Monday evening, the Office of the Architect of the Capitol restricted the workers' access to the tunnels," an AoC spokesperson said. “The workers have been reassigned to other duties.”

According to media reports, Thayer and the rest of the 10-man crew will be transferred to work in the Capitol Power Plant, a place that is currently undergoing a 7-month asbestos removal process. Thayer lamented to the Washington Post that he is going “from one contaminated spot to another.”

Murray: AoC Owes Workers an Apology

Murray said the removal of the workers should just be the first step in ensuring the safety of the workers.

“ ... The AOC still must apologize to workers, explain why it did not provide protective equipment for years and take responsibility for the years of damage it has inflicted on these workers,” she said.

Specifically, Murray has called on the AoC to:

  • Apologize to the tunnel workers for years of avoiding the health and safety issues in the tunnels.
  • Temporarily remove tunnel workers from the tunnels until an abatement plan is in order and medical clearance is received.
  • Get tunnel workers full medical evaluations and determine whether or not they are medically fit to wear respirators.
  • Secure work for tunnel workers in areas that will not affect their health – with no loss of wages, use of vacation time or other benefits – until an asbestos abatement plan can be developed and endorsed by OoC.
  • Institute an asbestos abatement plan that includes strategies for proper air monitoring.
  • Ensure that AoC tunnel workers and contractors are properly trained on asbestos awareness and abatement.
  • Abate all the asbestos as soon as possible.
  • Keep tunnel workers informed of AoC activities and progress.
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