Union: Employees Working in Unsafe Conditions at Vermont Airport

March 23, 2006
A union representing 11,000 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employees said several of them assigned to work at Burlington International Airport in Vermont have complained of hazardous working conditions.

The Professional Airways Systems Specialists (PASS) said they were concerned about a "pattern of negligence and indifference" by FAA, after an employee came to them complaining about a radiation leak inside an off-site airport facility that houses long-range radar systems. The workers claim FAA supervisors have known about the leak since August 2005.

According to Luke Drake, assistant regional vice president for PASS, a retired FAA employee who was present when a radiation hazard survey was processed in August, alerted employees working nearby the leak on February 2006. In addition, the workers, without instruction by FAA management, took it upon themselves to fix the problem by replacing the seal to repair the leak.

"Safety should be the FAA's No. 1 concern, both for air travelers and for its employees," said Tom Brantley, PASS national president. "The FAA should investigate and report why supervisors in Burlington let their employees work in dangerous conditions for so long without any attempts to fix the problem."

Reactions from FAA, Airport Officials

Susan Haigh, supervisor of the FAA's Systems Support Center at the airport, said she could not comment on the union's charges. Drake said when he and other union members went to the site to talk to Haigh about the facility's current safety conditions, he said that Haigh "seemed to look at the safety issues as a matter of inconvenience."

FAA spokesman Hank Price said the situation was being assessed.

"We're very concerned about the safety of our employees and we take every precaution we can. We believe that any exposure from the two instances cited was minimal, but we are assessing the radiation issue to make sure," Price said.

Officials from Burlington International Airport said they were not aware of the complaints as they "don't get involved" in issues pertaining to FAA employees. In addition, FAA facilities are not in the airport itself but in a separate building north of the main terminal, according to Bob McEwing, director of planning and development at the airport.

More Safety Concerns at Airport Site

The radiation exposure was not an isolated event, according to Drake. After the union received the radiation complaint, union officials went to the airport site and "found a litany of safety issues." In June 2005, workers were told to clean up oil leaking from a transformer at the facility despite their concerns that the oil might contain PCBs, a mixture of chemicals demonstrated to cause a variety of adverse health effects.

Drake also said workers expressed concern about a dangerous staircase that had not been replaced despite to numerous complaints directed to FAA management. In December 2005, an employee fell from the staircase's faulty steps and incurred broken ribs as a result.

Despite the injury, the supervisor failed to report the incident or fix the staircase, according to Drake. He said workers told him that management's solution was to post a "Do Not Use" sign on the stairs.

Price said that FAA management has put in a request to fix the stairway.

Fixing the Issues

Despite formal complaints, FAA supervisors have been dismissive at best, but at least haven't been denying the safety hazards, according to Drake. In February 2006, employees filed Department of Labor injury forms in regards to the radiation exposure. As of March 16, the supervisor in Burlington has still not completed the required response forms.

Drake said the union is currently in the process of filing a complaint with OSHA and would like the agency to launch an inspection at the facility. He said he was concerned that FAA was reducing its funding for its safety program, which is "not as thorough as it should be."

"At least these safety issues have gotten the attention of FAA management," Drake said. "We would like to see them to enforce their own rules more and put more funding into their safety programs and do their periodic safety audits, which they had stopped doing for a while."

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