Union calls for immediate closure of Ironton SSA

Published 9:39 am Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The national union representing employees at the Social Security Administration’s Ironton office is demanding the facility be closed due to black mold problems, a request the government agency is denying at this time.

“I’ve asked and demanded they close the office. The employees are experiencing respiratory problems and headaches among other symptoms because of the repeated exposure to the mold,” David Sheagley, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 3448, said in prepared statement released last week. “Around 100 people are in and out of that office every day – retirees, the disabled – and they are being exposed to black mold. This is a dire public safety issue.”

The union, which represents about a dozen employees in the Ironton office, claims in the release that the mold was first observed in the summer of 2009 and has since spread under and onto the seams of the vinyl wallpaper in the office, with clear plastic tape covering it.

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The union also says the mold has made nine of the office’s 11 workers ill at one time or another and that all of those have filed workers’ compensation claims.

Doug Nguyen, deputy regional communications director for the SSA, said the agency has taken steps to address the issue but that it will remain open.

“We have no plans to close the office,” he said.

He also said that the GSA conducted another environmental inspection of the building on Nov. 2, and the results have not come back as of yet.

“As soon as we get the final report, we’ll go from there,” Nguyen said.

The Ironton SSA is currently in the process of building a new office on the corner of Seventh and Vernon streets but it will not be completed until mid 2011. In September, local and national SSA officials said the reason for building a new office was due to an expired lease.

David Wilkinson of the General Services Administration — the agency that manages facility construction and acquisition for the SSA — said in an e-mail last month that in January 2009, the SSA submitted a request for a larger space.

That floor layout follows a new standard configuration that SSA has adopted for field offices.

Wilkinson said the agency was aware of the mold but that it was not a factor in the decision to move.

“GSA is not privy to communications between SSA and the union.  We are aware, however, that SSA has had the Federal Occupational Health Service conduct environmental inspections of the Third Street office in response to complaints of mold,” he said.

“It is our understanding that SSA routinely sends copies of such reports to the union’s national office, which in turn distributes copies to local offices of the union.”

The first of the inspections was made about a year ago Sept. 15, 2009.

Wilkinson went on to say that a more recent inspection made four recommendations, which the GSA then addressed.

He explained the recommendations as “continue to seal areas of wallpaper where suspect mold is visible; determine the extent of suspect mold contamination within the office both beneath the perimeter wall wallpaper and within perimeter wall cavities. Assure that recommendations made in the Sept. 2009 report are addressed. Assure that the relative humidity in the computer room comply with SSA specifications. GSA will continue to monitor the room’s humidity levels and see that necessary corrections are made.”

As a result of the inspections, Wilkinson said that the GSA determined that the mold situation was not serious enough to warn or inform the public.

The union representative disagrees, calling this a “ threat to the hundreds of people who go in and out of the contaminated office every week.”

“There’s no enforceable standard when it comes to mold and air quality,” said Sheagley.

Sheagley does say that what is defined as a “hazard” is unclear. He cites Article 9, Section 4 of their 2005 contract as saying that an abatement plan will be made if there is a hazard. “Both the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have agreed that the mold is unsafe and unhealthy but the hazard has yet to be confirmed, meaning no abatement plan. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is working with the Federal Occupational Health (FOH) agency to do abatement,” the release stated.