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Worker alleges asbestos problem at Smithsonian museum

A National Air and Space Museum worker who suffers from a lung disease has filed a federal complaint claiming that asbestos in the 33-year-old building is not properly contained.

March 18, 2009|Associated Press

WASHINGTON — An ill museum worker alleged Tuesday that the Smithsonian Institution didn't properly contain asbestos-laden dust from construction at the National Air and Space Museum and penalized him after he complained.

The federal complaint said workers weren't informed of the material's presence until March 2008, even though the Smithsonian acknowledged it knew about the asbestos in the building's outer walls since at least 1992.

Also Tuesday, a congressman on the panel that oversees the Smithsonian announced that the House Administration Committee would hold an April 1 hearing to examine workplace conditions at the world's largest museum and research complex.

The Smithsonian, which denies that it retaliated against exhibits specialist Richard Pullman, said it had no plans to remove the asbestos, which can cause cancer and lung disease, because of prohibitive costs. It said studies showed the material posed no threat to the museum's workers or its 5 million yearly visitors if properly handled or left undisturbed.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited the Smithsonian for violating three federal asbestos regulations in July, months after Pullman first reported problems to federal officials.

Pullman, 53, who suffers from a lung disease called asbestosis, said he begged managers over the last year to make sure proper equipment was used and to seal off dusty construction areas in the 33-year-old building. He filed complaints with OSHA and wrote to members of Congress who oversee the Smithsonian after he said problems persisted. His case was first reported by the Washington Post.

Pullman and his colleagues were informed of the asbestos risk a year ago at a training session. According to the complaint, the 27-year employee notified federal authorities days after the meeting and began e-mailing managers about safety lapses.

He said he was belittled by managers over messages he sent them.

"They dubbed him the 'asbestos police,' " the complaint charges. "They harassed him and taunted him as a whistleblower and they . . . downgraded his performance evaluation in order to derail his once-promising career."

Pullman said he was reassigned to a lower-level management position, denied a promised promotion and raise, and given his first-ever reprimand for not following procedures in reporting asbestos problems.

"I felt completely betrayed," he said Tuesday. "I felt the Smithsonian organization had considered us disposable commodities."

Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said Pullman wasn't demoted and retained the same salary. She said his managers weren't initially aware he had gone outside the Smithsonian with his complaints and that the reassignment was due to a department reorganization.

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