The flier proclaims in bold letters: "Asbestos Alert!"
"For your own safety, please exercise careful judgment before entering and remaining at your place of work," it reads.
Created by the National Treasury Employes Union, Chapter 202, the flier was taped to walls at 441 G St. NW.
"We're . . . scared, and we're tired of the tired excuses our agency is giving us," said Cheryl Y. Harris, 32, an employe of the Bureau of Government Financial Operations. Harris, who is also an area steward for the union, started making waves.
She wanted to know why asbestos-removal projects were taking place around her workplace without notification to the employes and without assurances that the work was being done safely.
"We know our health is being endangered by the federal government, and we're almost helpless to do anything about it," she said. "If you smoke, if you're a woman of child-bearing age or if you're black, the problems are much worse, the scientific evidence has shown."
Harris' problem is not an isolated case:
* At the Health and Human Services North Building on Independence Avenue, employes discovered a major asbestos-removal project in the basement. NTEU national President Edward Tobias, who also represents employes at HHS, called for the General Services Administration to name an "independent special investigator" to study the problem after a union-hired technician found high levels of asbestos in office spaces there. Having GSA -- the government's landlord agency -- study asbestos problems in its own buildings "is just like putting a fox in charge of a chicken coop," he said.
* At the Cotton Annex, adjacent to the Agriculture Department's headquarters building on Independence Avenue, employes came to work one September day and found an asbestos-removal crew wearing "space suits," according to one USDA memorandum. A woman who called The Washington Post to report the incident said, "My husband works in the building, and he was absolutely terrified for his health."
At the center of the controversy is GSA, which is responsible for maintaining a safe working environment for government employes.
Repeatedly, over the past year, GSA has insisted that no buildings leased or owned by the federal government have airborne asbestos levels that exceed federal standards. The substance is in many office buildings, having been used as an insulator and fireproofing agent until it was banned in 1972.
"If the asbestos is properly encapsulated or shielded from the public, there are no dangers," explained GSA's regional public buildings commissioner, James G. Whitlock. "Asbestos only becomes a problem when it is disturbed."
If the sharp-edged, microscopic fibers of asbestos become airborne and are inhaled, they can lodge in the soft tissue of the lungs and cause cancer, asbestosis or other potentially fatal diseases. Scientists still take differing positions on the danger levels and the type of asbestos that presents a risk.
To try to get around the increasing misconceptions and fears, GSA had promised a major public relations campaign to inform employes how the agency was getting out ahead of the problem -- encapsulating or removing asbestos before it became a health threat. Instead, the result has been a series of blunders that are epitomized by contractors and GSA employes ignoring the campaign in the interest of doing the job quickly.
For example, Peter Gillson, a senior safety inspector in GSA's regional office here, said the contractor working on the asbestos-removal project at 441 G St. "is not a top-of-the-line firm. They've had problems, big ones, in failing to follow safety standards. We're not going to say we're proud of the work" the company has been doing.
Harris, who works at 441 G St., said the assurances GSA is offering there haven't allayed any fears. "They had closed down certain corridors of the building, but adjacent corridors were nothing but dust balls," Harris said. "It was so thick you couldn't see through it, you couldn't breathe if you walked through it. I talked to a contractor about their instructions about clearing that hall, and he said 'GSA wants the work done -- they don't seem to give a damn about keeping the employes informed, or having the work done right.' "
Harris said she blames the Bureau of Government Financial Operations, which she said is responsible for providing a safe workplace for her, as much as the GSA. On behalf of the NTEU, Harris and chapter President Barbara Green are seeking an arbitrator's decision on whether Bureau of Government Financial Operations employes should receive hazardous-duty pay because they have had to work in an environment that was unsafe.
Whitlock said his agency is "working overtime" to ensure employe safety, "but there can always be problems. You can't do the work for the contractor."
Safety reports on the 441 G St. project culled from GSA through a Freedom of Information Act request show that GSA safety inspectors repeatedly cited the contractor for major violations that tended to create a threatening environment, Harris said.
At the Cotton Annex, the problem was again communications. GSA building managers are supposed to be informed of any asbestos-removal project before work crews come near the site. The reason is simple: They're supposed to seal off areas and have employes alerted to what is happening. In addition, the building managers are supposed to ensure that the work is done safely.
At the Annex building, none of that happened.
Concerned employes wrote to tell John J. Franke Jr., assistant secretary of administration at the Agriculture Department, that they came to work one day and found "two individuals wearing toxic-waste-disposal suits." According to the memorandum to Franke, Elise Ann Brown, an employe, was photocopying some material in the room that the suited workers had entered. "You really should not be in here," the suited worker is purported to have said. "We are removing the asbestos from this closet."
Later memos show that GSA officials failed to properly inform USDA workers and the GSA building manager that the work was scheduled.
"We know what we did and that we did it wrong," Whitlock said. "We're trying to develop new procedures that will require my deputy, Ted Leininger, to know in advance of every new asbestos project to make sure that the employes are informed. But we did use legitimate control procedures to protect the employes there."