Management

Did GSA ignore threats to the health of some feds?

Repeated testing over the last three years at Goodfellow Federal Center in St. Louis, Missouri, revealed that the building, which dates back to 1941 and is managed by the General Services Administration, has traces of dozens of hazardous substances that could be damaging to the health of those that come in contact with them.

But a recent American Federation of Government Employees whistleblower disclosure with the Office of Special Council contends that, despite knowing about the dangers for years, GSA has failed to adequately protect and notify employees of the hazards.

“GSA took away each employee’s right to protect his or her health by ensuring they were not informed of the contamination in the workspace,” AFGE said in a May 24 letter sent to Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., whose district houses the Goodfellow center.

“Those hazards have not been eliminated. Employees are still being asked to believe GSA is properly managing the contaminations when they have been chided by their own Inspector General three times in the past nine years for not having an environmental program that protects the safety of their tenants.”

An investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 2016 found 83 hazardous substances in the building.

GSA later conducted its own analysis in November 2016 and found lead, cadmium, arsenic and other heavy metals in the ventilation system.

In total, GSA’s Public Building Service spent over $1.9 million in environmental sampling and analysis at Goodfellow.

Tests performed since that time show that asbestos and lead are no longer in the air at the facility, but the union alleges that GSA has failed to show that it has addressed the other 81 hazardous substances in the building.

But, according to a March 2019 report issued by the GSA Office of Inspector General, the agency wasted time on duplicative studies conforming hazards they already knew to be present, rather than addressing the issue.

“Although these studies identified the presence of numerous environmental hazards at the complex, including lead, asbestos, and other known cancer-causing agents, PBS failed to comprehensively address the deficiencies and the complex’s occupants of the existing conditions,” the report said.

“PBS’s approach of conducting duplicative studies instead of taking action to remediate the hazardous contamination or prevent access to contaminated areas endangered the health of people at the complex and wasted taxpayer money. Furthermore, the deficiencies in PBS’s approach to these studies and violations resulted from its lack of effective environmental programs and policies to ensure compliance with environmental regulatory requirements at both the regional and national levels.”

The report recommended that PBS prevent the exposure of occupants to hazardous substances, post safety plans where appropriate, maintain a complete repository of all environmental studies, ensure that all such studies are distributed to occupants of the building and take publicly-disclosed action to respond to health and safety studies done at regional facilities.

A response to the report from PBS Commissioner Daniel Matthews agreed with the recommendations, and noted that the agency had developed an online reading room for such reports, created a site-specific safety plan for Goodfellow and implemented controls that prevented employees from entering hazardous portions of the facility.

However, according to the AFGE letter to Rep. Clay, the dangers are not just limited to the areas that PBS has restricted access to.

“We also believe employees are still being exposed through regular roof leaks, which continue to bring down ceiling tiles — sometimes directly onto employees’ heads,” the letter said.

“GSA’s November 2016 Environmental Memo confirmed lead, cadmium, arsenic and other heavy metals contaminated most of the heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems in the buildings, meaning the contaminants were airborne before 2016 as there were not any controls in place before OSHA put GSA on notice. Federal employees were also exposed to the everyday maintenance and construction activities, which gave no consideration to disturbing the contamination, thus making it airborne for employees to breathe in.”

AFGE requested that a congressional investigation be undertaken to hold accountable any that did not appropriately respond to the problem, widespread employee notification of the hazards, the option to telework or relocate out of Goodfellow, coverage for healthcare screenings and workers compensation if appropriate, a Government Accountability Office study into the management failures, and independent study into any health concerns resulting from exposure to the Goodfellow facility and that law enforcement agencies be notified if any studies uncover criminal wrongdoing.

AFGE requested that a congressional investigation be undertaken to hold accountable any that did not appropriately respond to the problem, a Government Accountability Office study be taken to look into the management failures, an independent study look into any health concerns resulting from exposure to the Goodfellow facility and that law enforcement agencies be notified if any studies uncover criminal wrongdoing.

For impacted employees, AFGE called for widespread notification of the hazards, the option to telework or relocate out of Goodfellow and coverage for healthcare screenings and workers compensation, if appropriate.

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