PEER: Interior Employees Still Breathing Bad Air

June 29, 2007
According to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), workers in the Interior Department's headquarters still are being exposed to chemical fumes, smoke and dust.

In August, industrial hygienists from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducted a health hazard evaluation of the Main Interior Building (MIB) of the Interior Department's National Business Center and found numerous indoor air hazards and related bad practices. Those hazards, which were detailed in a May 24 NIOSH report, included “numerous unplanned air pathways where air pollutants generated in the renovation area can migrate to adjacent occupied areas of the building”; workers dry-sweeping construction debris rather than using wet methods or vacuuming to suppress dust; and no evidence that the contractor in charge of renovation has implemented an effective indoor environmental quality plan for the renovation project.

NIOSH determined that the most significant source of indoor air quality problems at the MIB stemmed from the Interior Department's failure to establish negative air pressurization between areas of the building that are being renovated and adjacent occupied office areas.

In the days following release of the NIOSH report, Interior Department officials issued various public statements asserting that the deficiencies already had been addressed and that “improved construction barriers and revised work practices act as a system to prevent dust and odor migration to the maximum extent possible.”

PEER: Project Management “Making a Mockery” of Promises

On June 13, R.C. “Skip” Vaughn, the General Services Administration project manager for the Interior Department renovation work, wrote to Thomas Ratcliffe – the project manager for Grunley Construction, which is in charge of the Interior's modernization project – about the project's inability to meet minimum health and safety standards. Vaughn in his letter shared some of the recommendations made by NIOSH to improve the air quality.

“What is now needed is a thorough review of where we are and how do we get the project to improve upon prior initiatives for better overall [indoor air quality] as it relates to the modernization project,” Vaughn stated in the letter.

Issues such as negative air pressurization (commonly referred to as “negative air”), housekeeping and garbage removal from construction areas were addressed. He also asked the contractor for a prompt response identifying the items that weren't being addressed by him and a date for a full response to the issue.

“The modernization project management has been flat-out lying to the workers and making a mockery of recent promises to make employee health a top priority and end the 'business-as-usual' approach at Interior," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, referring at a May 22 speech to an all-hands staff meeting by Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne. “Regardless of what happens tomorrow, it is now indisputable that Interior employees and contractors have been breathing hazardous fumes for years.”

The Department of the Interior 5 years ago began a project to modernize all six wings of the MIB at its Washington, D.C., headquarters, which was built in the late 1930s. Although workers are removed from each wing under renovation, adjacent wings of the MIB have remained occupied during the renovation project.

As a consequence, the project has been plagued with “a long history of tenant complaints about indoor air quality,” in the words of the Skip Vaughn letter.

“This is just the latest in a series of reports from NIOSH, EPA and even the Interior's own safety experts that this headquarters makeover has been a horror show," Ruch added, noting that the Interior Office of Inspector General is the latest agency to start investigating health and safety problems but has announced no date for its report. “Secretary Kempthorne has an opportunity to redeem his rhetoric by becoming personally involved to make sure this work is done safely and competently.”

For more information, read "NIOSH Blasts Air Quality at Interior Department."

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