Dying for a Job U.S. Capitol Workers Exposed to Asbestos

posted on:
April 17, 2007

author:
Staff

 My name is John Thayer and I am the supervisor of the Capitol Power Plant Tunnel Crew that works for the Architect of the Capitol. There are 10 of us in the crew. 

We maintain the five miles of underground utility tunnels that supply heat and cooling to all of Congress and some 20 other federal office buildings on Capitol Hill. Some of us have worked in the tunnels for over 20 years I've worked for the AOC for 22 years.

If you all are comfortable sitting in this room, because our team of pipe-fitters and welders and electricians is doing its job. Just over a year ago, we found out that the AOC had been misleading us for years about the extent of our workplace exposure to asbestos.

The Architect knew, but didn't tell us, that the concentration of airborne asbestos in the tunnels was extremely toxic 30 to 40 times the legal limit. We discovered this when the Office of Compliance filed an unprecedented complaint against the Architect for not fixing safety problems that the OOC had identified seven years earlier. So we asked to see the medical records from our annual employment physicals conducted by the Office of Attending Physician.

My own records stated that my lung age was 118 years old. I was 33 at the time. No one ever told me this: on the contrary, every year the doctor gave me a paper saying I was cleared to work in the tunnels. We all got those pieces of paper. Even worse, the Architect had let us carry deadly asbestos home in our clothes every day for years, without telling us that this posed a real risk to our wives and children. Banning asbestos is important not only for the safety of the workers who handle it, but also for their families.

So said, John Thayer, when he testified before Congress March 1. Audio link You can find more links to that hearing, including audio and photos here.

On March 20, Murray sent a strongly worded letter to the U.S. Architect demanding action:
I am writing to you to express my deep concerns about the ongoing hazardous working conditions in the US Capitol Power Plant Utilities Tunnels. On March 1st I chaired a hearing in the HELP Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety focusing on the critical importance of banning the use of asbestos in America.

During that hearing I was very troubled to learn from Mr. John Thayer about the lack of attention to asbestos control in the Capitol Hill utility tunnels. It was a shock to all of us to hear about inadequate asbestos abatement methods and the asbestos exposures to Architect of the Capitol (AOC) workers and possibly to the staff and residents of the Capitol Hill community.

I was also concerned about the lack of training provided to the workers; apparently they were also not informed about the potential dangers to their health of working around asbestos. Lastly, we heard about pressure put on workers to not report these problems to Congress and efforts to restrict their access to evaluation by a physician of their choice.

This letter is to request information on your specific plans to remove the remaining asbestos in the utility tunnels, including criteria for selection and monitoring asbestos abatement contractors, containment strategies, and training of both AOC and contract workers. I am also interested in your plans to provide proper personal protective equipment for AOC workers as well as adequate awareness training. Lastly, I want to know why you were only willing to pay for the doctors you referred to the men.

I have known and worked with Dr. Harbut for a number of years. He is one of the foremost specialists in the field of detecting occupationally related asbestos cancers in patients, including mesothelioma. Given what the AOC's office has put these men through, I would have thought you would have wanted to do whatever your office could to begin to correct this horrible situation involving these dedicated public servants.

Your decision does make me wonder whether you are willing to provide the best possible care for these men. It also tells me that you may have been more worried about your legal liabilities in this matter than providing the best care possible for these men. Are the physicians you referred the men to board certified pulmonologist or otherwise credentialed in occupational medicine or respiratory diseases, particularly mesothelioma?

Reducing and ultimately eliminating asbestos exposure in the US is of utmost importance to me and I hope you will join me in doing everything we can to protect the health of our AOC utility tunnel workers. The defensive posture of your office and its seeming indifference to address the issues raised by the Office of Compliance a year ago has not served anyone well – most importantly the innocent tunnel workers.

I trust you will meet with all of the tunnel workers in the very near future to offer your apologies for the way they have been treated up till now.

On Tuesday, April 10, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) finally got word that the U.S. Architect was pulling the workers out of those deadly tunnels.

But this is not a problem that was a surprise. This is an issue that Murray has been championing for years. From this link you can find information about the dangers of asbestos, a material that is toxic in minute amounts. And more on Murray's work on asbestos here.

In 2000, the Congressional Office of Compliance filed a complaint detailing some 13,000 health and safety violations in the tunnels. Then last February, the Congressional Office of Compliance filed another complaint that the AOC knew there were numerous asbestos dangers but "effectively ignored… many potentially life-threatening safety and health violations."

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