By James V. Grimaldi and Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, March 15, 2009
A year ago, the National Air and Space Museum gathered a group of workers for a safety briefing on "asbestos awareness." Nearly 45 minutes into the session, the museum's safety coordinator said something that Richard Pullman thought at first he'd misheard: There was asbestos in the museum walls.
Pullman, a 53-year-old lighting specialist, had worked in the building for 27 years, frequently cutting into interior walls to install and update artifacts at one of the world's most visited museums.
"Are you telling us that I've been working with this stuff for that long, drilling into these walls, sawing and sanding, unprotected?" Pullman recalls asking. "Why didn't you guys say anything?"
Within weeks, Pullman had gathered internal documents and filed federal workplace safety complaints. And because he'd been experiencing shortness of breath, he went to see a lung doctor, who diagnosed asbestosis, a lung disease linked to breathing asbestos fibers.
Pullman and the museum are now engaged in a dispute about the danger posed by asbestos dust in the building. Smithsonian Institution officials acknowledge the presence of asbestos but say their tests show there is nothing harmful in the air. As a precaution, the museum spent $27,000 to clean up 11 areas in five galleries, officials said.
Industrial hygienists who reviewed the tests told The Washington Post that the greatest risk of exposure is to workers who did not wear protective gear. For visitors to the museum, exposure would be extremely unlikely unless they walked into a work area after walls were sanded or cut.
Managers have known for 17 years that wall seams at the 33-year-old museum on the Mall had been smoothed over with spackling containing levels of asbestos that would trigger worker-safety rules. A consultant's report commissioned by the Smithsonian, which runs the museum, determined the material would be harmless if undisturbed. The report urged that workers be alerted.
But that rarely occurred.
"There were many staff changes and organizational changes," Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said, "and the information from the . . . report was not passed along over the years."
John F. Benton II, the museum's associate director of management and public programs, said in a statement that museum officials took steps last year to "provide the most current training and equipment to affected employees to mitigate any potential hazards."
But Pullman contends that years of work left a buildup of fine-particle asbestos dust behind the walls and in false ceilings. Last October, Pullman spent thousands of dollars to hire an environmental engineer to secretly collect and test samples. The results indicated that asbestos had been mishandled, which "likely resulted in exposures to workers and the public," according to the engineer, J. Brent Kynoch.
A Smithsonian lawyer said in a letter to Pullman's attorney that the samples tested by Kynoch were "wrongly acquired" and that there is no proof the dust ever endangered anyone. St. Thomas said the dust was removed this month because the museum's safety office wanted to be "extraordinarily cautious" and prevent the dust from becoming airborne.
Several tests of air inside the museum have turned up negative or shown asbestos below regulated levels, institution records show. The tests were performed while workers used asbestos-limiting precautions and did not include an analysis of accumulated asbestos dust.
"Drilling, sanding and cutting holes for electrical boxes, et cetera, has been done on exhibit walls that date to 1976," said David Paper, the museum's chief of exhibits production, adding that "even when disturbed, airborne fiber levels did not exceed permissible levels."
Gary Urban, the industrial hygienist who tested the air samples for the Smithsonian, said there is no safety risk at the museum, soon to be featured in a Hollywood film, "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian."
"I have a 4-year-old and a 7-year-old, and I would not hesitate to take them to the museum," Urban said.
In the past year, Pullman has filed three complaints about asbestos with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which then cited the Smithsonian for failures of notification, monitoring and training. In a statement to The Post, OSHA officials said the museum should have cordoned off the area, posted warning signs, and used an impermeable dropcloth, wet methods and local ventilation when working on the walls.
Last spring, Pullman filed two federal workers' compensation claims. In September and January, the U.S. Department of Labor's workers' comp office denied his claims. The office acknowledged there is evidence "that the claim event [work on walls with asbestos] occurred," but it added: "However there is no medical evidence that provides a diagnosis which could be connected to the event." Pullman is appealing the denial.
One of Pullman's doctors, Michael Harbut, a Wayne State University physician who co-wrote the American Thoracic Society's criteria for diagnosing asbestosis, told The Post that the facts of Pullman's case lend support to his claim that his diagnosis is work-related: He worked for a long period of time without protection in close proximity to airborne asbestos.
Pullman said his efforts have led supervisors to mockingly dub him "the asbestos police." He said his job has been reclassified in retaliation, a charge denied by the Smithsonian.
Asbestos, a common mineral with fire-retardant qualities, is not harmful if it is sealed and does not become airborne. If inhaled or ingested, asbestos can cause cancer.
Construction of the limestone-and-glass Air and Space Museum began in 1972, and the compound used to join the interior walls contained asbestos. Six years later, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned all forms of asbestos in such compounds because sanding and sawing "presents a hazard" of airborne asbestos fibers.
Parents led an outcry over aging schools where crumbling asbestos can get into the air, but efforts to ban the substance were overturned in court. Environmental regulations now require careful handling. Asbestos removal can be costly, and large-scale cleanups have driven businesses into bankruptcy.
In 1992, Versar, a consulting firm hired by the Smithsonian, found between 1 and 5 percent asbestos in the joint compound used in two dozen rooms, including the second-floor gallery featuring the world-famous Wright Brothers Flyer. A level above 1 percent is supposed to trigger complex work requirements, cleanup precautions and notifications under OSHA rules.
But workers were seldom told about the asbestos. "There is no record of asbestos awareness training in the years from 1997 to 2008," St. Thomas said.
Claude Russell, the since-retired health and safety coordinator who was asked to set up the March 2008 class, said he and administrators had known about asbestos for years, but "it wasn't my job to tell anybody about anything. There were people above me who were supposed to share that information."
Associate Director Benton said "current administration" did not learn of asbestos in the walls until last year, according to St. Thomas.
Exhibit specialist Robert "Gene" Gibson said that "management had never issued a formal warning to employees" about asbestos in the walls until the 2008 safety class.
During that class, the risk was played down, Pullman said. The instructor assured workers that their bodies' defense mechanisms and their respiratory systems would protect them, he said. The instructor denied Pullman's allegations, saying he did not minimize the hazards.
Days later, Pullman filed the first of his complaints with OSHA, alleging that safety precautions such as respirators and ventilators were not used during work on a gallery that housed an exhibition about NASA.
When the OSHA investigator arrived, he met with Pullman's supervisor, David Paper, and others. In a follow-up letter to Pullman, the OSHA investigator said the problems "had already been addressed by your employer" and did not violate OSHA standards. Pullman appealed to the Labor Department's inspector general.
A couple of weeks later, Pullman told Paper that contractors were drilling into a wall in the NASA exhibit without protective gear.
"You did the right thing," Paper replied in an e-mail.
An institution-wide workplace safety official, Rachel Gregory, found no cause for alarm. "Our monitoring of drilling exercises has not yielded any elevated asbestos fiber levels," Gregory wrote in an e-mail.
In June, Pullman reported that fire-control contractors had failed to use protective equipment when sawing into a wall in a restroom.
"Richard is absolutely correct on this one," Benton said in an e-mail exchange with Paper. "We are beating our brains out to do it right" and "are potentially endangering all of our employees with this slipshod approach."
After OSHA cited the museum in July, Pullman's relationship with his bosses soured. Pullman was assigned a new supervisor, and he contended that he was effectively demoted.
The Smithsonian said Pullman was not demoted, pointing out that his compensation and terms of employment did not change.
In August, Pullman complained about work being done, without protective gear, on walls near a museum entrance.
Six days later, he received a memo from Paper after a verbal counseling session for photographing co-workers and making them uncomfortable. "No NASM employee is the asbestos police or a safety expert," Paper said in the memo.
Pullman said he took the photos after reading on the OSHA Web site that workers should document violations or workplace hazards.
According to documents filed by Pullman, Russell, the museum's safety officer, repeatedly told him, "Watch your back!"
In September, Russell blew a loud whistle behind Pullman's back.
Russell denied he did it to taunt a "whistleblower." He said in a written response to OSHA that he was testing a "model of lighted whistle for staff because it could be useful during an emergency."
In September, Pullman filed a whistleblower complaint with the Labor Department, which dismissed it. His attorneys have appealed.
As things escalated, Pullman hired Kynoch Environmental Management, a former Smithsonian contractor that occasionally works for lawyers who pursue asbestos claims.
In early October, engineer Kynoch, escorted by Pullman, collected 10 samples at the museum. One sample of dust in the Sea-Air Operations gallery tested so high that Kynoch concluded that workers clearly had been drilling into asbestos-containing walls without protective measures and that the area should be cleaned "as soon as possible."
Another sample scraped from drywall in the gallery on the second floor came back positive for 13.7 percent chrysotile, the most common form of asbestos, Kynoch found.
St. Thomas cast doubt on the Kynoch testing. "We cannot consider the report from a firm hired by an employee to be credible," she said.
In an interview, even Kynoch said the threat to the public is low "as long as there was no construction activity going on."
But that is not much comfort to Pullman.
"Here I am, 53 years old, trying to support a family, sending kids to college, trying to advance my career, on the right track," Pullman said. "Here this diagnosis is thrown in. It completely changed my world."