Capitol workers claim harassment for raising asbestos concerns

December 13th, 2006

Ten steamfitters who work in the crumbling, asbestos-lined tunnels beneath the U.S. Capitol complex in Washington, D.C. are set to receive an award for civic courage. The men claim to have been harassed by their bosses and denied equipment they need to do their jobs because they went public about the asbestos contamination in the tunnels where they work. On Thursday, they will receive the Joe A. Callaway Award for Civic Courage, given to individuals who take personal risks to go public with the truth.

The workers came forward with their complaint about the treatment they had received after the Architect of the Capitol’s office was cited by a workers’ rights board for not removing the asbestos from the tunnels. David Marshall, the asbestos attorney for the workers, says that the architect’s office knew about the health risks that the asbestos posed to workers, yet still failed to act. Asbestos exposure is known to cause mesothelioma, a deadly cancer which often kills victims less than a year after they are diagnosed.

The workers had asked the architect’s office to pay their medical and transportation expenses so that they could be examined by an asbestos illness specialist in Michigan. But the Architect of the Capitol refused, saying his office would only pay for the men to be seen by local doctors, who were not asbestos experts. Three of the men decided to travel to Michigan at their own expense, where the specialist found scarring and plaque in their lungs that suggested an asbestos illness.

But according to their complaint, the architect’s office retaliated against them by reporting them as troublemakers to Congress. The workers also say that their jobs were threatened and that they were deprived of supplies they need to work in the 130° F tunnels below the Capitol complex.

Marshall says that the workers are prepared to file an asbestos lawsuit against the Architect of the Capitol’s office for their injuries and harassment if the two sides are unable to resolve their dispute.

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