Court workers fear repairs may mask deeper problem

Odor, frequent illnesses cause staff to wonder if mold is behind walls

Ellicott City

August 11, 2004|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

After weeks of eight-hour days spent working in offices that smelled distinctly like a locker room -- sweaty, musty and dirty-sock-like -- some employees in the Howard circuit clerk's office were so frustrated recently that they talked about staging a sickout.

"It got to the point the smell was still around. People were sick," said Katherine Beane, who is executive assistant to Clerk of the Circuit Court Margaret D. Rappaport. "We were just a bit fed up."

But after a weekend away, and with the air somewhat better, they shelved the idea.

The smell, ever-present employee health complaints and pervasive rain-induced leaks top the latest list of woes for the circuit courthouse -- a building beset by complaints ranging from mold to crowding. But county officials say they hope a series of small-scale projects will alleviate some of the problems.

Renovations to Rappaport's space -- including new carpeting, paint and lower cubicles to improve airflow -- are imminent, and a roof replacement for the building is expected to go out to bid in a week or two.

County officials are working on plans to rehab the former state's attorney's space into a courtroom, masters hearing rooms, jury deliberation rooms and other court offices.

The work is expected to make optimum use of recently vacated space in the clerk's office and the former state's attorney's office and to stop the water flow that has led some courthouse workers on the upper level to cover their desks when forecasters predict rain.

"The big issue is getting the roof replaced," said James M. Irvin, the county's public works director. "It's key to getting rid of any mold or mildew."


But the projects still won't answer the most worrisome question for clerk's office employees who wonder what might be growing behind the office walls. Something, they say, has been causing years of severe headaches, sinus problems, aching bones and sore throats. And something left a smell that lingered for weeks.

"When it smells that bad in here, it makes you wonder what you don't see," said Karin Wilson, a clerk in the civil department. Wilson said she plans to file a complaint with the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health office.

"It's got to be so much worse if you can't see it," she said.

The stench seemed to peak a few weeks ago, spawning complaints from courthouse visitors and talk of the sickout.

`They deserve better'

"It's just like going into a basement, going into a cellar," said Rappaport. "My people work hard. They deserve better."

Rappaport said she called county officials to tell them about her employees' concerns. By the following Monday, the offices smelled better, although other frequent complaints about the comfort level -- that the office is too hot, too cold or muggy -- persist.

"None of us feel like it's a safe environment," said Sherry Spangenberg, a clerk in the civil department.

But despite continuing employee concerns that mold is making them sick, Irvin said no new environmental testing is planned. Two years ago, testing revealed high concentrations of mold in some areas of the building, but county officials said then that the fungi were not dangerous -- although they might cause allergic reactions in some employees.

"We went through all that, and it's moisture-driven," Irvin said.

With the renovations and roof replacement in the near future, some employees said they're hoping for the best but wonder if new tiles and carpeting will fix -- or mask -- the problems.

"I'm willing to wait and see if it's been corrected," said Laura Pannebecker, a 22-year clerk's office employee.

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