Several General Services Administration officials contend that top agency managers have deferred corrective action on serious fire and life-safety deficiencies in area federal office buildings because of tight budgets.
In some instances, this inaction violates federal regulations designed to protect government employes from imminent dangers, according to these officials.
Last week, GSA Administrator Gerald P. Carmen insisted that "no imminent dangers exist for federal employes because those that are found are immediately corrected." Carmen's comments came as he released part of a draft report detailing fire and life-safety deficiencies discovered by agency investigators. The part he released showed more than 1,300 uncorrected fire and life-safety deficiencies in the Washington area alone.
Ted Leininger, deputy GSA regional public buildings commissioner, said top GSA leaders have "continuously downplayed or ignored" the increasing problems associated with fire and life-safety repairs, including Occupational Safety and Health Administration violations, especially since the Reagan administration took office. GSA, by choice, follows OSHA standards in government-owned buildings; they must be followed in leased facilities.
"These problems have the potential to threaten the lives and the health of government employes," said Bertrand G. Berube, a former regional GSA administrator who says he was detailed out of his position after repeatedly complaining that he wasn't being given the manpower or financial resources to keep the government's capital assets up to standards. The problems continue to "exist for years," Berube said, adding that "people's lives are being risked . . . their money is being wasted."
"We've made our case year after year after year and all we do is get beat about the head in the region for not fixing things," Leininger said. "It is not our fault. It's their fault for not providing adequate funding."
Leininger said an estimated $534 million worth of critical repair projects are waiting for funding in this area alone, but only $40 million a year is available. To do the job "right," at least "$80 to $90 million a year is needed in this region alone," he said. "The amount of money needed to fix our deficiencies has been known for years . . . it is just not true that this is the first they are hearing about it."
A careful reading of the massive, two-inch-thick stack of fire and life safety report summaries for the Washington area shows that about three dozen of the deficiencies violated OSHA guidelines that GSA follows. Those deficiences, which range from potential exposure to carcinogenic asbestos and deadly ammonia gas to improperly grounded electrical outlets, have been around for up to five years in some instances.
Leininger, a career civil servant, said "we don't have the manpower or the money to do everything right now, but we do have a program to correct them wherever they are found. That is what is important."
The OSHA deficiencies are a particular thorn because Federal Property Management Regulations specifically require the agency to give them a "priority in the allocation of resources." The requirement isn't being met because GSA regional officials generally have given the authority to supervise corrective measures to low-level federalemployes who serve as building managers.
"That can't be done at the building managers' level," agreed GSA Public Buildings Commissioner Richard O. Haase. "We may have to change the way the region is doing it."
Leininger said that minutes of a meeting in October 1981 of the Planning Review Board that is responsible for setting agency priorities shows that the group determined that fire and life-safety repairs at the Interior Department and Federal Office Building No. 9 should be "deferred" because they are of "low national priority."
In addition, Leininger said a January 1983 fact sheet told top agency officials that the repair and alterations workload is growing faster than funding can be provided and faster than it can be reduced.
National GSA safety director O. R. "Russ" Meisch said the Washington GSA office is "not following the spirit of the rule" if it does not maintain a centralized tracking system for OSHA violations raised by tenant agencies and does not track them until they are fixed.
"We don't know how accurate that report is," said GSA's regional safety director, James F. Hawkins, indicating that some of the citations made by his staff may "have been corrected" while others are "potential OSHA violations, waiting to happen, but are not violations now." Hawkins said information about OSHA violations rises above the building-manager level only with other, often minor, complaints.
Hawkins also contended that the regional office is following guidelines for tracking OSHA violations.
"We do not report specifically to anyone the OSHA-type violations that agencies tell us about. We do report, to Mr. Meisch's office, the number of complaints that we investigated," Hawkins said. Although that report says GSA investigated 229 of 238 safety and health complaints received from agencies and employes during the third quarter of fiscal 1983 (April, May and June), Hawkins could not say if any "prioritized" attention was given to those that were OSHA violations, or if any were OSHA violations.
GSA faces almost a daily problem with a federal building due to its stalled maintenance schedule. For example:
* Last Monday, a 4-by-2-foot chunk of plaster fell from the ceiling of a stairwell in the Internal Revenue Service headquarters injuring a contract cleaner. The plaster fell because it was waterlogged from a leaking air-conditioning system that was not being maintained according to schedule.
* On Tuesday, a fire apparently started by a careless workman who violated a D.C. fire code requirement barring smoking on roofing jobs, destroyed a part of the roof of the Pension Building.
* A week ago Thursday, three fire alarms went off in the Agriculture South building, causing a full evacuation. No fire was found, and it was not a test. Agency officials did not know what caused the device to sound. One said, however, it may have been intentionally set off simultaneously in three locations.
* Last month, a $750,000 electrical fire destroyed two floors of the National Weather Service headquarters in Silver Spring. GSA safety officials say the fire spread because the landlord did not remove flammable ceiling tiles from the building expeditiously or agree to install a sprinkler system.