DNR workers still getting sick

Something in the air at Tawes Building, employees complain

May 20, 1999|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

People were still getting sick in the Tawes Building in Annapolis years after employees began complaining of problems and after an independent study urged a cleanup of the ventilation system, Department of Natural Resources workers say.

Six employees, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said at least a dozen employees in the E Wing of the building on Taylor Avenue alerted supervisors about respiratory and severe, recurring gastrointestinal problems about two years ago.

They said many more employees have complained about dizziness and recurring sinus and upper respiratory infections, such as bronchitis and pneumonia, since then, but their complaints have gone uninvestigated.

The workers said they learned early this year of a 1995 study done by the Injured Workers' Insurance Fund (IWIF) after it received complaints. The study advises a closer look at accumulated dirt and debris in air ducts and at high levels of carbon monoxide in the air.

IWIF is an independent state agency that, among other things, acts as claims administrator for state employees for workers' compensation insurance.

A study of the ventilation system that DNR commissioned in December concluded that some floors don't have enough fresh air and found damaged air filters and a "large amount of dirt accumulation on the heat exchange coils."

"Excessive amounts of dirt on the heat exchange coils can act as a source of yeast, molds and bacteria" and contaminate air, the report said.

A $90,000 cleaning that began in March in response to the December study sickened employees, who complained of nausea, fainting spells, burning eyes, sore throats and breathing problems. At least 70 had filed complaints with the insurance fund by the time the cleaning ended last week.

The cleaning crew worked on the air ducts of the four-story building from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. a couple of days a week, the employees said. Many DNR workers report to work between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. Oxine, one of the chemicals used to disinfect the ventilation system, is a mild eye irritant, and inhalation can irritate the nose, throat and upper respiratory tract.

A total of 679 people work in the Tawes building, of whom 230 are in the E Wing.

Stan Arthur, DNR deputy secretary, said the department tried to help employees as soon as illnesses were reported during the cleaning. They were allowed to move to other wings or work at home, and meetings were arranged with the cleaning contractor and the state Department of General Services, which manages and maintains the Tawes building.

He acknowledged that it took two weeks for these remedies to be put in place, but said that was because complaints came in sporadically.

"There were some people who were unaffected, and the people right next to them would be affected," he said. "It was kind of hard to pin down. It evolved on a daily basis."

Tawes workers unhappy about how the cleaning has been handled wonder whether the state agencies could not have intervened when they received IWIF's 1995 report.

"There are a lot of building occupants, and the possibility of microbial growth was a cause for concern," said H. Allen Bennett, the IWIF industrial hygienist who compiled the report.

"It's disappointing that it wasn't communicated to the employees. They spend their days there, and it's best to be up front with the facts."

One employee said, "I was getting sinus infection after sinus infection. If I had been aware [of the IWIF report], I might have been able to relocate. I'm not going to put my health at risk like that."

The stories of sickness go beyond sinus infections. E Wing employees said they began wondering if it was the building that was causing the illness when a cluster of workers was stricken with gastrointestinal problems at about the same time two years ago. Since then, several employees have had recurring bouts of diarrhea, stomach pains and vomiting, requiring multiple visits to doctors and using up sick days, sometimes for a week at a time.

Arthur said although managers were aware of the gastrointestinal illnesses, they never heard from any of the employees' doctors.

"Our employees have always been asked to go see their own physician and, if there was a problem, their physician could be directed to us," Arthur said. "I'm not aware of any doctor's reports that have come back to us stating that there was something in the building that was causing these problems."

"Sometimes things don't get done as fast as anyone would like them to get done," he said. "But I'm not aware of anyone who has been ignored."

Arthur said he did not know about the 1995 IWIF report, but said DNR probably forwarded it to General Services. General Services officials said they didn't know about the report but are looking for a contractor to ensure adequate ventilation.

Arthur said he is awaiting another study, by the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health agency, for possible proof that employees have been ill because of the air in the building.

The employees say morale among workers is low and they are skeptical whether their illnesses will really be investigated.

"I've felt very betrayed," one employee said. "They haven't taken care of us from the beginning. You're talking about a state building, the Department of Natural Resources."

Pub Date: 5/20/99

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