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Last Updated

26 Nov 2002

Source: New York Times, November 26, 2002.

Despite 9/11, Study Finds 'Significant Safety and Health Hazards' at Capitol


WASHINGTON, Nov. 25 Despite some improvements in workplace safety since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Capitol complex still has serious shortcomings that could threaten workers, the public and lawmakers in the event of another emergency, a new assessment said today.

The Congressional Office of Compliance said in a report that inspections of the Capitol and related office buildings from April to July found "significant safety and health hazards" including blocked or locked fire doors and incomplete emergency response plans.

"All of our apparent vulnerabilities inadequate building exit capacity, inaudible alarms, missing fire barriers loom much larger now as the prospect of an emergency has become more imminent," said the report from the general counsel of the compliance office.

The agency, created by Congress to enforce workplace standards, faulted the Capitol police for putting officers at risk when anthrax spores were released in a Senate office last year, attributing missteps to the lack of a plan for handling such crises. It said the police, citing security considerations, had yet to disclose fully their plan for responding to a similar attack.

The report also raised concerns about "escape" hoods bought to protect workers and visitors in the event of another chemical or biological attack.

About 25,000 of the hoods were distributed around Capitol Hill, but the compliance office said they were not certified to meet standards of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and might provide limited protection in an emergency evacuation.

The report said Congressional offices, working with the police, had made major strides in developing and marking escape routes.

In their review of the findings, most of the agencies took little issue with them. The architect of the Capitol, while noting the progress made in the past months, said, "Much remains to be done."

But the Capitol Police Board disagreed with criticism of the department's efforts, saying the general counsel's findings were based on a limited review since the Office of Compliance would not agree on restrictions to keep some information confidential.

Officials at the Office of Compliance said they were working with the new chief of the Capitol police to gain access to the department's terrorism response plan and evaluate it.

The Library of Congress, which was criticized in the report for its state of preparedness, was also singled out for not having an emergency action plan. The agency said it would have one finished by February.

The report said the experience at the World Trade Center suggested that planning could be critical in savings lives. "The importance of emergency evacuation plans and training cannot be overstated," the report said.

Among the more serious violations cited in the report were fire doors blocked in the Capitol, two Senate office buildings and at the police headquarters; lack of proper exit signs in two Congressional office buildings and a library building; and improperly maintained fire prevention equipment.

"At a time when threats of terrorism are serious and imminent, the remaining deficiencies in legislative branch emergency response capabilities require urgent attention," said Gary Green, the general counsel.

The compliance office was created after Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 1995 and sought to hold Congress to the same kind of workplace rules that lawmakers impose on private business.

Operating with a $2 million budget and a handful of investigators, the office has run into opposition on Capitol Hill for its reports, including one that suggested that irradiating Congressional mail to neutralize any foreign substances could itself make workers sick. The report said information obtained since July essentially confirmed findings that low levels of irritants were present in irradiated mail.