The American Federation of Government Employees is calling for the “immediate transfer” of more than 2,000 federal employees at a multiagency facility in St. Louis with a history of hazardous materials mismanagement, including lead and asbestos.
The issue stems from an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) report from July 2016, in which inspectors documented several “serious” instances of unsafe working conditions, as well as a follow-up report last March from GSA’s Office of Inspector General.
In addition to the relocation of these employees, AFGE has also filed a whistleblower disclosure with the Office of Special Counsel and called for an investigation from Congress over what the union has described as whistleblower retaliation.
Ward Morrow, AFGE’s assistant general counsel, told Federal News Network that an agency whistleblower had brought health and safety concerns to the attention of management, including pictures of conditions throughout the facility.
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But in an internal GSA document shared with Federal News Network, GSA management recommended the whistleblower “receive thorough training, coaching and counseling, for as long as necessary, with the most senior HR representative within the region in attendance, to allow for him to completely understand his job function and responsibilities, his reporting limitations, the importance of being a team member, and how to effectively accomplish program objectives from within the organization as opposed to taking a path of travel outside of the organization.”
“If he is unwilling to participate in this training and coaching, or if he is still unsuccessful and performing in an inappropriate manner after a reasonable amount of time,” the memo continues, “then we recommend he be placed in another position within the organization where he can be successful.”
AFGE estimates that about 2,400 employees work in the St. Louis facility, and work for the Social Security Administration, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Agriculture Department and the General Services Administration.
“Whistleblower harassment and retaliation should never be tolerated, but GSA management appears to be recommending just that,” AFGE National President J. David Cox said in a statement Wednesday.
In a letter to Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), whose district includes the Goodfellow federal building, AFGE cites a November 2016 environmental memo from GSA that confirmed the presence of lead, cadmium, arsenic and other heavy metals in the heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems in the St. Louis facility.
While AFGE concedes air testing done by GSA has shown lead and asbestos have not been in the air since sampling began in 2016, the union says it has received no such assurance about 81 other hazardous substances it claims the agency has not been taking samples of.
In the OSHA report, inspectors note that warehouses, staircases, air handling units, chiller rooms and file rooms “were not kept clean of accumulation of lead containing dust.”
Inspectors also noted that GSA “did not provide information to the employees on operations in their work area where hazardous chemicals were present.
GSA’s IG report notes the Public Buildings Service (PBS) had “completed the required steps to address the citations included in OSHA’s July 2016 notice,” but also determined that PBS “did not take adequate action” to protect tenants, contractors and visitors prior to the 2016 OSHA report.
According to the IG report, the regional PBS office ran at least 33 environmental sampling and analysis studies between 2002 and 2016, but most of the studies came to the same conclusion: That “various hazards were present at the complex,” and that previous studies had backed up this determination.
“PBS’ 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,” the IG reported stated.
In response to the OIG’s findings, PBS Commissioner Dan Mathews wrote that his agency agreed with the watchdog office’s recommendations.
PBS, he said, implemented controls in May 2016 that “prevent individuals from entering specific areas” within the Goodfellow facility. In addition, PBS developed a site-specific safety plan for employees working out of the center, and required tenant agencies to develop their own safety plans.
GSA OIG did not immediately respond to requests to clarify whether GSA or PBS still had outstanding recommendations related to the cleanup of the Goodfellow facility.
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According to AFGE, GSA first told the union that “the contamination stems from building materials such as asbestos floor tile and lead-based paint that are common in buildings of this age and their presence doesn’t necessarily signify a hazard or risk.”
However, AFGE has pushed back on GSA’s characterization of the asbestos risk. The union claims “friable” asbestos, or material that can easily be crushed or crumbled by touching it, has been found in the buildings’ basements.
According to GSA, the buildings that make up the Goodfellow Federal Center were built by the Defense Department in 1941 and served as an Army ammunition depot. The Army transferred ownership over to GSA in 1966.
“This has probably been a problem since World War II,” Ward said about reports of hazardous contamination.
In addition, the union requests health care screenings and testing “for any and all employees who have ever worked within the confines of the buildings at the Goodfellow Center.”
AFGE, in the letter to Lacy, has also requested the involvement of law enforcement agencies if any of the watchdog reviews indicate “wrong-doing that could rise to the level of criminal activity, waste, fraud, abuse or violation of any civil or administrative law.”
“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 wrote in its letter. “Those hazards have not been eliminated.”
A GSA spokesperson did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
OSC spokesman Zachary Kurz said the agency “can neither confirm nor deny whether any specific disclosure has been filed.”