SSA union blames air for illness

December 10, 1992|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer

More than half of Baltimore's Social Security Administratio office workers say they suffer from frequent bouts of nasal congestion, coughing and sneezing, irritated eyes and fatigue, and many blame the problems on poor indoor air quality at work, according to a survey released yesterday by a union representing them.

The American Federation of Government Employees said a nationwide survey it commissioned of Social Security workers, including those in Baltimore, demonstrates the need for federal regulations of building ventilation. Union officials also called on the Social Security Administration to respond more promptly to employees' complaints about indoor air pollution.

"This is a modern-day health and safety problem," said David Schlein, national vice president for the union, which represents 700,000 government workers, including 50,000 employed by the Social Security Administration.

The survey, which union officials said was the largest of its kind, was prompted by a fatal outbreak of Legionnaire's disease last year at a Social Security office building in Richmond, Calif. A janitor's death and the illnesses of five other workers were linked to bacterial contamination found in the building's air conditioning system.

A total of 5,450 Social Security workers, about 11 percent of the agency's work force, responded to the survey. The responses of 890 Baltimore workers parallel the nationwide findings, say union officials. The study was financed by the National Energy Management Institute, a group representing heating and ventilation contractors.

Health complaints about poor indoor air quality often are easy to overlook as a cold or flu. But more than three-fourths of Baltimore workers surveyed who complained of flu-like symptoms said their symptoms eased or went away whenever they were away from work.

Union officials contended that federal employees suffer more from so-called "sick building syndrome" than private office workers because of government policies and rules. Federal buildings constructed and leased since the 1970s have recirculating air systems to save energy costs, which allow contaminants to build up in ventilation ducts.

Besides threatening workers' health, poor office air quality is undermining Social Security's productivity, union officials said. More than one-third of those surveyed in Baltimore said they had missed three or more days of work in the past year because of a respiratory illness.

Louis D. Enoff, acting Social Security commissioner, released a one-paragraph statement promising to review the findings.

"If the survey shows a need to change or accelerate our efforts, you can be sure we will continue to make employee health and safety a top priority," Mr. Enoff said.

But members of the union's Local 1923, which represents Baltimore area workers, said Social Security administrators have been slow to respond to complaints about indoor air quality at the agency's Metro West office building downtown and at its national headquarters complex in Woodlawn. About 15,000 people work in the two locations.

Patrick Rosendale, the local's vice president, said that an inspection this fall found air quality problems in the Baltimore Teleservice Center at the Metro West building on 300 N. Greene St. He blames the mold he saw growing last summer in ceiling ventilation ducts for the recurring colds and sinus infections he has been suffering since last winter.

Although some ventilation flaws have been fixed in the building recently, Mr. Rosendale said, the mold and his breathing problems persist.

The AFGE and other unions have petitioned the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to regulate building ventilation. Although OSHA officials acknowledge that health complaints about indoor air quality have grown since the 1970s, no decision has been made about imposing new federal rules, said Frank Kane, an agency spokesman.

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