Capitol Tunnel Workers Request NIOSH Evaluation

Ten Capitol tunnel workers are asking the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to conduct a health hazard evaluation, as the workers claim that they are consistently exposed to falling concrete, excess heat, asbestos and other safety and health hazards.

The workers – who service 5 miles of utility tunnels beneath the U.S. Capitol complex and maintain the plumbing systems that provide steam and chilled water to Congress, the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court and other federal buildings – complained that as a result of their exposures to hazardous agents, several of the workers have developed asbestos-related diseases and breathing and pulmonary problems.

"The asbestos in the tunnels not only endangers us who work in the tunnels, but also poses a danger to people who work and visit on Capitol Hill, as asbestos has escaped through the grates covering tunnel entrances," the workers assert.

Architect of Capitol Was Cited Before

In 2000, the Architect of the Capitol was cited for safety and health violations by the Office of Compliance, which monitors working conditions in the legislative branch.

According to the Government Accountability project (GAP), a government watchdog group that has been tracking the workers' complaints, Office of Compliance investigators in December 2005 found that little had been done to improve the tunnel structures and again filed a complaint against the architect's office for not making the necessary safety changes recommended 6 years earlier.

According to David Marshall – an attorney who, along with GAP, represented the workers in a whistleblower complaint filed last year against the Architect of the Capitol – it was only last year that the architect's office began requiring its workers to wear respirators.

"It's shocking that the architect's office has for years ignored asbestos exposure," Marshall told OccupationalHazards.com.

According to GAP, the workers in 2006 wrote a letter to three U.S. senators and one representative – Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo.; Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.; Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.; and Rep. Steny Hoyer D-Md. – asking for help after not getting a response from the architect's office.

The Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee, over which Allard and Durbin preside, has held hearings to discuss the plight of the tunnel workers. Allard and Durbin have sent letters to the architect, Alan Hantman, expressing their concerns for the workers' safety and instructing him to follow a series of steps to ensure that the workers operate in a safe environment.

A call made to the Architect of the Capitol spokesperson was not returned.

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