The Agriculture Department violated employee safety laws when conducting lead abatement activities at its headquarters offices last spring, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration recently ruled, nonetheless, union officials say the department has failed to address the issue.
In April, workers in the Rural Development division arrived at work one day to discover that the department had begun lead abatement efforts in their workspace without notice. Employees in the area were initially forced to work in close proximity with the abatement efforts, which exacerbated existing medical conditions for some.
An investigation by OSHA, requested by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3870, found in late September that Agriculture violated several provisions of the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act.
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Specifically, OSHA determined that employees were exposed “to lead surface contamination ranging from 3.1 micrograms/100cm2 to 238.9 micrograms/100cm2 as a result of deteriorating and lead based paint.” In addition, employees were not provided information about their exposure as legally required; the department did not provide workplace health incident records to OSHA for four months; and the department neither had an occupational health and safety program in place nor provided employees or union representatives with occupational health and safety training as required by law.
Sherrie Carter, president of AFSCME Local 3870, said OSHA investigators tested furniture that had been removed from the area prior to the lead abatement efforts, and found evidence of lead particles, meaning employees likely have been exposed to lead in the workplace. She said that since the first round of abatement, the department has postponed plans to renovate other areas of the aging building.
“As far as future renovations, we don’t know what their intentions are. Whether there has been a halt because of the commotion with OSHA or not, we don’t really know,” Carter said. “Some people in the office want OSHA to come back [for more testing], and OSHA has made it clear that while the findings are specific to this area of the building, [the report] applies to the entire building.”
Although it has been more than a month since OSHA issued its findings, Carter said department leaders have done nothing to bring the workplace into compliance. Worse yet, the department has not yet made most employees aware of the report itself, which is required by law.
“The law requires that a copy of this notice be posted immediately in a prominent place at or near the location of the violation(s) cited herein, or, if it is not practicable because of the nature of the employer’s operations, where it will be readily observable by all affected employees,” states the second paragraph of the report.
In an email to GovExec, the Agriculture Department disputed the union's claims that it is still in violation of OSHA's findings.
"In October, USDA posted OSHA required report postings on bulletin boards and 'practicable areas' for review and awareness by all employees and visitors within the immediate area of concern at the USDA Headquarters Complex and the George Washington Carver Center to ensure that employees are advised of their safety and health and what to do when exposed to unsafe and unhealthy working environments," the department said. "All lead abatement was completed prior to USDA’s response to the OSHA report. USDA takes employees’ safety and health into serious consideration and works to ensure a safe working environment."
While the initial lead abatement controversy highlighted the rift between employees and senior leadership over Secretary Sonny Perdue’s decision to severely restrict how often workers can use telework, Carter said that last month, her bargaining unit won an internal grievance over the policy change, which reduced the amount the days employees can work remotely from upwards of full time to one day per week.
“I do feel very, very blessed [that we won the grievance],” she said. “I feel it was a miracle because of the climate we were in. It just didn’t seem like it would be possible.”
The result of the grievance proceeding reverted the telework policy for members of the Rural Development bargaining unit to what it was before the department restricted telework, meaning employees can return to their previous telework agreements and that employees can continue to seek agreements that allow them to work remotely up to full time going forward. Carter hopes it will spark a change throughout the department, not just in her division.
“Secretary Perdue’s oneUSDA still applies to all of USDA, and many of the locals are still working and fighting, because if your contract is in negotiations, they’re working to put that into the contract,” she said. “We’re hoping and praying that this will open the door for both bargaining unit and non-bargaining unit employees to [regain the right to telework]. I feel as though if customer service is a factor, and the bargaining unit employees [on telework] are providing it, we’re fully aware that non-bargaining unit employees are providing the same customer service, and they should be provided the opportunity to have the same telework opportunities.”
This post has been updated to include comment from the Agriculture Department.
Image via Mark Van Scyoc/Shutterstock.com.