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Smithsonian settles asbestos suit filed by ex-museum employee Richard Pullman

CASE CLOSED: Richard Pullman, a former exhibit specialist at the National Air and Space Museum, has asbestosis, a lung disease linked to breathing asbestos fibers. He will receive $79,000 in severance.
CASE CLOSED: Richard Pullman, a former exhibit specialist at the National Air and Space Museum, has asbestosis, a lung disease linked to breathing asbestos fibers. He will receive $79,000 in severance. (Ricky Carioti - The Washington Post)

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By James V. Grimaldi and Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 10, 2009

An outside consultant urged improvements in the Smithsonian Institution's handling of asbestos in its buildings, calling for changes in procedures and training, and inspections to locate the toxic substance throughout the sprawling museum complex.

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Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough ordered the study this year after The Washington Post reported in March that a former exhibit specialist who worked on walls containing asbestos had been sickened during his 28-year career at the National Air and Space Museum.

The worker, Richard Pullman, 54, has settled a lawsuit with the institution for $233,000, according to records obtained by The Post this month from the Department of Labor under the Freedom of Information Act.

Pullman said he frequently sawed and drilled into interior walls to install and update exhibits for more than 25 years. In 2008, he and other workers were told for the first time that the walls contained asbestos, Pullman said. Asbestosis, a lung disease linked to breathing asbestos fibers, was diagnosed in Pullman by his physicians.

Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said, "There's no admission of guilt" in the settlement.

Clough, a civil engineer by training, noted in an e-mail to employees this week that the report, by engineering consultant URS, calls for "a number of improvements." He emphasized the report's positive findings.

"Our written policies and procedures are typical of a federal agency and our efforts exceed those of most commercial entities, according to the report," he said in the e-mail, which the Smithsonian provided to The Post.

Clough is scheduled to testify at an oversight hearing Thursday before the House Appropriations Committee panel that monitors the Smithsonian. St. Thomas said there were no plans to bring up the report in his testimony.

"The recommendations like improving records maintenance and communication in no way indicates that the Smithsonian is unsafe for its employees," St. Thomas said.

Pullman's settlement was signed in July by Air and Space Museum Director John R. Dailey, but it was filed under seal at the Labor Department's administrative court.

The engineer's report, which the Smithsonian gave to The Post, said that the institution failed to use the most reliable method of asbestos testing, which would "afford greater protection for employees, contractors, and the public."

While the Smithsonian had conducted baseline studies to locate asbestos in facilities years ago, the institution had failed to reinspect buildings every three years, a commonly accepted "best management practice," the report said.


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