At Murray's Urging, Architect of the Capitol Pulls Out All Workers from Asbestos Infested Tunnels

Action Follows Senator Murray's Hearing and Letter

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

(Washington, D.C) - Yesterday, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) received word from Acting Architect of the Capitol (AOC) Stephen Ayers that ten Capitol Hill tunnel workers - who have been exposed to deadly levels of asbestos in the Capitol tunnel complex for years - will immediately be removed from their work in the tunnels. Senator Murray has pushed for the removal of the tunnel workers since the problems where highlighted at a March 1st hearing which she called and chaired. Over the past five weeks, Murray's office has been meeting with the AOC, the Congressional Office of Compliance, and the Office of the Attending Physician to find ways to protect tunnel workers.

Murray's hearing featured the testimony of tunnel worker John Thayer. Murray also wrote to Ayers on March 18th to request information on asbestos removal plans and to get explanations of past failures in protecting tunnel workers. After Murray received information from Dr. Michael Harbut - a preeminent occupational and environmental health physician - that the workers had signs of pulmonary and respiratory disease she immediately moved toward removal of the workers from the tunnels.

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."

"The Architect's decision to take action is a welcome one, but does little to excuse the many years of negligence that have cost these workers their health," said Senator Murray. "For far too long these workers were exposed to deadly concentrations of asbestos while the Architect's Office turned its back on their complaints.

"The reports of inadequate protections, a lack of asbestos training, and failures to respond to the workers' concerns have been shocking. The AOC's failure to act not only threatened workers' health, but put families at risk for asbestos exposure as workers went home with fibers on their clothes. It should never have taken this long for this injustice to come to light. But since these revelations came out, I have fought to remove our workers from the tunnels.

"These workers have labored for years in the recesses of our nation's Capitol providing the heating and cooling services we too often take for granted. It is inexcusable that their employer has taken there health and well being for granted for so long.

"My message to the AOC is that this needs to be the first step - not the last - in finally ensuring the safety of workers and protecting the Capitol Hill community. The AOC still must apologize to workers, explain why it did not provide protective equipment for years, and take responsibility for the years of damage it has inflicted on these workers."

Specifically, Senator Murray has called on the AOC to:

  • Apologize to the tunnel workers for years of avoiding the health and safety issues in the tunnels.
  • Temporarily remove tunnel workers from the tunnels until an abatement plan is in order and medical clearance is received.
  • Get tunnel workers full medical evaluations and determine whether or not they are medically fit to wear respirators.
  • Secure work for tunnel workers in areas that will not affect their health - with no loss of wages, use of vacation time or other benefits - until an asbestos abatement plan can be developed and endorsed by the Congressional Office of Compliance.
  • Institute an asbestos abatement plan that includes strategies for proper air monitoring.
  • Ensure that AOC tunnel workers and contractors are properly trained on asbestos awareness and abatement.
  • Abate all the asbestos as soon as possible.
  • Keep tunnel workers informed of AOC activities and progress.

Senator Murray chairs the Senate HELP Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety. Murray has worked for six years on banning all asbestos in the U.S. and has introduced legislation in the 110th Congress that prohibits the importation, manufacture, processing and distribution of products containing asbestos in the U.S. Murray's bill is S. 742.