WASHINGTON (AP) - An ill museum worker alleged in a whistleblower complaint Tuesday that the Smithsonian Institution didn’t properly contain asbestos-laden dust from construction at the National Air and Space Museum and penalized him after he complained.
The federal complaint said workers weren’t informed of the material’s presence until March 2008, even though the Smithsonian acknowledges it knew about the asbestos in the 33-year-old building’s outer walls since at least 1992.
Also Tuesday, a congressman who oversees the Smithsonian announced an April 1 hearing to examine workplace conditions at the world’s largest museum and research complex.
The Smithsonian, which denies it retaliated against exhibits specialist Richard Pullman, said it has no current plans to remove the material that can cause cancer and lung disease because of prohibitive costs. It said studies show the asbestos at the museum poses no threat to workers or the its 5 million yearly visitors if properly handled or left undisturbed.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited the Smithsonian for violating three federal asbestos regulations in July 2008, months after Pullman first reported problems to federal officials.
Pullman, 53, who suffers from a lung disease called asbestosis, said he begged managers over the last year to make sure proper equipment was used and to seal off dusty construction areas. Pullman filed complaints with OSHA and wrote to members of Congress who oversee the Smithsonian after he said problems persisted. His case was first reported by The Washington Post.
Pullman and his colleagues were informed of the asbestos risk at a March 2008 training session. According to the complaint, the 27-year employee notified federal authorities days after the meeting and began e-mailing managers about safety lapses.
He said he was belittled by managers over messages he sent them.
“They dubbed him the ‘asbestos police,’” the complaint charges. “They harassed him and taunted him as a whistleblower and they … downgraded his performance evaluation in order to derail his once-promising career,”
Pullman said in the past year he was reassigned to a lower level manager, denied a promised promotion and raise, and given his first-ever reprimand for not following procedures in reporting asbestos problems.
“I felt completely betrayed,” Pullman said Tuesday. “I felt the Smithsonian organization had considered us disposable commodities.”
Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said Pullman wasn’t demoted and maintains the same salary. She said his managers weren’t initially aware he’d gone outside Smithsonian with his complaints and that the reassignment was due to a department reorganization. She wouldn’t comment on whether he was teased but said he was thanked more than once for his observations.
Smithsonian officials said they weren’t aware the building’s drywall contained asbestos before a 1992 study. They acknowledge that workers weren’t informed for the next 16 years, blaming a communication breakdown caused by staff reorganizations and management changes.
“The rationale that staff and organizational changes have prevented effective action is unacceptable,” Rep. Robert Brady, D-Pa., said Tuesday, in announcing the House Administration Committee’s hearing on Smithsonian safety issues.
St. Thomas said they’re not aware of any other workers with health problems like those afflicting Pullman, whose work sometimes involves sawing and drilling into the museum walls. The museum is offering medical tests for current and former employees.
The Smithsonian’s safety officers and consultants found levels of asbestos in the air to be well below what’s deemed dangerous by OSHA, St. Thomas said. Still, the museum spent $27,000 in February to clean up dust “behind the scenes” and to conduct air monitoring.