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Compliance Office Records Capitol Safety Improvements

House and Senate office buildings are a minefield of safety violations, from the long “daisy chains” of extension cords to the lack of safe fire exits.

At the end of the 109th Congress, the Office of Compliance had identified more than 13,000 hazards, including some that were serious enough to kill or injure someone. Unenclosed stairwells, hazardous chemicals and falling concrete all made it onto an extensive list of problems.

But it’s looking up: In a recently released progress report, the office notes a substantial decline in hazards. By the end of 2008, they estimate the number of hazards will have decreased by 25 percent.

Still, the task is not an easy one. The Office of Compliance is trying to make up for the many decades when building safety was simply forgotten or ignored. It will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and years to correct.

And it’s all up to an office of 22 employees, tasked with leading Congress to compliance.

“It’s giving them the big picture,” said Pete Eveleth, the office’s general counsel. “Giving them the good news, the hard news, so they can make a judgment that only they can make.”

The March progress report shows vast improvement from just a year earlier — an accomplishment Eveleth attributes to the cooperation between the office and Members and staffers. The OOC rarely issues citations, instead opting to be a resource and partner in fixing violations.

“I think that people sometimes miss the point when we talk about how we’re interesting in seeing all standards met,” Eveleth said. “What’s behind the standards is people safety. What we care about is that it will be a safe environment for people.”

Ensuring that safety becomes complicated in the face of Congress’ old and historic buildings. Plans have to be hashed out, decisions made on how much to spend and what to prioritize. And Congress has to approve the spending, which Members inevitably criticize and question in committee hearings.

In appropriations hearings for the fiscal 2009 budget, Members cringed at the $127 million needed to fix dangerous utility tunnels underneath the Capitol complex. The Architect of the Capitol has until 2012 to repair the tunnels under a settlement with the OOC, which filed its first-ever complaint in 2006 for the asbestos and safety violations found there.

All in all, that project will cost $300 million. And then there’s the long-term plans to create closed-off stairwells in House buildings and install a smoke purge system in the Capitol.

Last month at the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, ranking member Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) questioned the maintenance priorities of the Architect of the Capitol — priorities largely taken from OOC recommendations.

“It looks to me like you’re just accepting everything they’re saying,” Alexander told acting Architect Stephen Ayers at the time. “Why don’t you just let them set all priorities?”

Indeed, if offices don’t comply or aren’t cooperative in fixing violations, the OOC can seek an order mandating that the fixes are made. But the complaint over the utility tunnels is the furthest the office has gone. Instead, the office tries to work cooperatively, offering advice and helping with plans, Eveleth said.

Already, House officers have distributed pamphlets with tips on how to fix simple violations, and last week, the House Chief Administrative Officer announced a new hallway policy that prohibits easels, tables and other clutter.

This kind of public awareness accounts for much of the decrease in hazards, Eveleth said. The goal, he said, is to get offices to be their own safety inspectors and work with the OOC to make the Capitol campus safe.

“I’m seeing it moving more and more in that direction,” he said. “Are we there yet? No. But it just takes time and persistence and feedback.”

The Office of Compliance’s 110th Congress Progress Report can be downloaded at compliance.gov.

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