Why Haven’t USDA Workers Been Protected from Asbestos? OSHA Investigates

In 2007, seven years after receiving a citation for employee injuries, the Architect of the Capitol (AOC) finally began removing asbestos from Capitol Hill’s 100-year-old underground tunnels.

Staffers had used the Capitol Building Tunnel System for years before complaining about health complications from asbestos exposure. The complaints accused the AOC of ignoring the deadly hazard.

Five years and more than $173 million later, the agency had finally completed repairs. But the damage was permanent for several injured employees – and they wouldn’t be the last to risk their health on federal property. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has just begun investigating the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in which employees are exposed to asbestos (and lead paint) on a daily basis.

USDA Accused of Failing to Warn and Safeguard Employees

According to a union representing USDA employees, office workers are currently working in very close proximity to an asbestos removal site inside the building. Numerous complaints say management failed to “provide sufficient notice about asbestos and lead abatement or to maintain secure, sealed physical barriers between ongoing work and staff at nearby desks.”

In fact, all management used to “secure” the site was a tarp and a “DANGER ASBESTOS” sign.

These efforts are clearly no match for airborne asbestos fibers – only one of which is enough to cause aggressive, fatal diseases that kill more than 39,000 Americans every year.

“The USDA has not and is not taking this health problem seriously,” said Marjorie Galanos, a financial analyst for USDA whose father died of an asbestos-caused disease in 2003. “It is insulting.”

Unfortunately, it gets worse. The USDA is already under scrutiny for rolling back the clock on its telecommuting policy, which now forces employees to work on-site at least four out of every five days. This has made it impossible for them “to do their job in a safe location,” said Sherrie Carter, a finance and business loan specialist for USDA’s Rural Utilities Service.

“You have a lot of people here that are frustrated and feel as though their health is not being considered,” Carter said. “It should’ve been handled way differently.”

USDA’s ‘Protection Procedures’ Not Enough to Protect from Cancer

In a statement, USDA officials denied “discouraging” telecommuting and said employees were given plenty of notice about the renovations. The agency also maintains they had put “protection procedures” in place. But the USDA’s and OSHA’s ideas about protection are markedly different.

Former OSHA executive David Michaels remarked: As the “the two primary hazards” associated with renovations, both asbestos and lead paint must be sealed off with a solid barrier. “That barrier has to be in place – and impermeable,” he said.

How did USDA officials, responsible for the health and safety of America’s food supply, miss this textbook safety guideline?

“It’s more than a little disappointing that the federal government, the only power capable of banning asbestos from the country, can’t even remove it from its own offices safely,” said Linda Reinstein, president and co-founder of anti-asbestos advocacy organization ADAO. “Employees should never have to fear for their own safety at work, let alone make numerous complaints before something is done. The USDA should know better.”

When Will the Government Learn That Asbestos Kills?

All in all, the government simply hasn’t done enough. It has failed to adequately protect numerous federal buildings in addition to USDA offices. And even after the tunnel affair, the AOC closed part of the Capitol twice – once in 2014 and again in 2015 – for separate asbestos scares. But that’s just federal property. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has failed to protect the entire country.

Asbestos remains built into millions of U.S. homes. Thirty million of them contain asbestos-based insulation alone. But asbestos companies, after spending most of the last century hiding asbestos risks from the public, have spent recent years and millions of dollars lobbying to keep asbestos legal. Under industry influence, the EPA still hasn’t banned asbestos.

OSHA may hold employers accountable for asbestos protection in the workplace, but from a broader perspective, USDA’s case has raised several questions. Why should employees shoulder the burden of advocating for their own safety? If the federal government can’t protect its own workers from asbestos exposure, how can they expect others to get a handle on it?

And most chilling of all: How many more lives will asbestos claim before the government takes real action?