Tuesday, May 1, 2001

U.S. Capitol maintenance employees are asking Congress for tougher health and safety standard enforcement after a report in March that found they had the highest injury rate among federal workers.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration reported recently that the Architect of the Capitol’s Office had 17.9 injuries for every 100 full-time employees, the highest rate among 130 federal agencies surveyed.

The architect’s office oversees maintenance of the Capitol, the Library of Congress and congressional offices with its nearly 2,000 employees.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees wants Congress to add enforcement provisions to the Congressional Accountability Act, which requires congressional offices to follow the same workplace safety standards as private employers. The act was passed in 1995 but limits the Office of Compliance the health and safety agency for Congress to issuing citations that merely inform violators of a health or safety problem.

At a rally outside the Capitol last Friday, AFSCME representatives complained the act does not compel the Architect of the Capitol’s Office to act responsibly.

“If this was a private corporation, someone would be responsible for these violations, either through criminal penalties or through fines,” said Don Maddrey, AFSCME’s legislative affairs representative. “We feel that there needs to be something to hold the architect’s office accountable.”

Since the Congressional Accountability Act was passed, 29 health and safety citations have been issued against the architect’s office, Mr. Maddrey said.

“This is the Congress of the United States,” he said. “They of all people should be setting the example not being the worst on record.”

Officials of the union’s Council 26, which represents about 10,000 federal employees, said the act should authorize fines and restraining orders against congressional offices.

Hilda Fields, an AFSCME member who cleans the Rayburn House Office Building, said the denials of medical benefits she encountered after developing carpal tunnel syndrome was an example of how workers’ health is sometimes overlooked.

“They claim that they don’t consider this carpal tunnel syndrome a work-related injury,” said Miss Fields, who filed a workers’ compensation claim with the Department of Labor last August. She said she got the injury from repeated lifting and pulling on her job.

The Labor Department will award workers’ compensation benefits to federal employees for carpal tunnel syndrome, but only if they can prove it was a job-related injury.

Similar repeated trauma injuries were the reason the Clinton administration tried to enact ergonomics rules that would restrict repetitive motions on the job. Congress and the Bush administration, however, overturned the rules, citing the high costs to employers.

The Office of Compliance cited the architect’s office for nine OSHA violations in March. They included a failure of supervisors to require proper eye, face and hand protection; improper use of respirators and inadequate training for avoiding bloodborne pathogens.

Bruce Milhans, spokesman for the architect’s office, disagreed that fines and restraining orders were a better way of enforcing health and safety standards.

“When the Office of Compliance issues a citation, we take that extremely seriously and we take the actions necessary to come into compliance,” Mr. Milhans said.

He said Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman is taking tough measures to improve the agency’s safety record. Among them was encouraging employees to report their injuries, which could explain the increase OSHA noted, Mr. Milhans said. Other measures involved organizing safety councils among employees and hiring an executive officer for facilities management in January whose main responsibility is job safety.

He added, however, that some danger is inherent to the employees’ jobs, which include custodians, groundskeepers, woodworkers, electricians, masons, subway and elevator maintenance workers. “In short, all these positions have a high propensity for physical injuries,” Mr. Milhans said.

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