One of the last places you’d want to find asbestos, a mineral that kills more than 39,000 Americans every year, is in a federal building that’s responsible for food health and safety of all Americans.
But according to a union representing U.S. Department of Agriculture employees, asbestos exposure is indeed the concern. Staff members claim USDA officials have knowingly exposed them to the mesothelioma-causing mineral – as well as lead paint – by failing to seal off an asbestos removal site.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is now investigating the building in response to employees’ complaints. Here’s what we know so far.
OSHA Investigates: USDA Workers and Asbestos Exposure
The photos provided by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) speak a thousand words. In a USDA office undergoing asbestos abatement, which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends isolating with solid barriers, all that stands between workers and the site are a tarp and a sign marked “DANGER ASBESTOS.”
“USDA has not and is not taking this health problem seriously,” said Marjorie Galanos, a financial analyst for USDA whose father died of asbestos poisoning in 2003. “It is insulting.”
Worse, the agency’s renovations come amid already simmering controversy over its telecommuting policy changes. A new requirement forces everyone to work on-site at least 4 days out of the week.
This not only denies employees the work-life balance that attracted them to the USDA in the first place, but also makes it difficult for them “to do their job in a safe location,” said Sherrie Carter, president of a union affiliated with AFSCME.
“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.”
Unfortunately, USDA employees aren’t the only people whose health has taken a backseat.
The Only Authority with the Power to Ban Asbestos? Also Failing
According to Bloomberg, the USDA denied allegations of neglecting to warn employees about the abatement and forbidding them to telecommute. In response to claims that employees weren’t sufficiently protected from hazardous materials, the agency insisted “protection procedures” were in place. But do they comply with OSHA’s standards?
Asbestos and lead paint are “the two primary hazards,” associated with renovations, said George Washington University public health professor David Michaels, who ran OSHA under President Obama. “That barrier has to be in place – and impermeable,” he said.
But even the government has failed to follow this guideline in numerous buildings on its own property – not to mention across the rest of the country.
Elsewhere, asbestos remains hidden in millions of U.S. homes. Thirty million of them contain asbestos-based insulation alone, but asbestos companies spent most of the last century hiding the risks of many similar materials. To add insult to the thousands of asbestos injuries this caused, these companies have spent recent years lobbying to keep asbestos legal.
Lawsuits abound among homeowners and workers wronged by asbestos companies’ secrecy. But under industry influence, the EPA still hasn’t banned asbestos. Around 3,200 Americans are still diagnosed with mesothelioma every year.
The chilling question remains: If the government can’t even protect its own employees from exposure to deadly substances, then who will protect us, the greater American public?
OSHA’s findings will be made public after the agency completes its investigation. At least we can expect transparency in this case.