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Capitol Complex Safety Practices Dissatisfy Norton

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton berated the Architect of the Capitol on Thursday for workplace safety issues and called for studies into ways to make the Capitol complex safer for visitors and employees.

The D.C. Democrat took particular offense to the fact that the AOC doesn’t tally the number of visitors who suffer injuries in the Capitol complex. It relies instead on tort claims to gauge the number of visitor injuries.

“How is the AOC going to comply with the standards of workplace safety and prevent the tort claims if we don’t even know, have no records, of injuries of visitors, but only of our own employees?” Norton asked Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers, who said there are fewer than 10 tort claims every year.

“What kind of after-the-fact approach to preventing accidents is that?” Norton continued. “If you want to see some Member of Congress get angry, let’s let a bunch of visitors from her district get hurt at the Capitol.”

The comments came during a hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management, which Norton leads. The hearing was called to examine the safety of the Capitol complex after an Office of Compliance report estimated that there are about 6,300 hazards around legislative branch buildings.

The Congresswoman directed Office of Compliance Executive Director Tamara Chrisler to report back in 30 days about whether the OOC wants to recommend keeping a tally of injured visitors.

She also directed the agency to report back in six months about whether rewarding AOC employees for maintaining a low number of workplace safety violations could create a conflict of interest and lead to underreporting.

The request followed testimony by Wallace Reed Jr., president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 626. He said employees should be applauded for reporting accidents instead of rewarding them for not having accidents at all.

But Ayers did not completely agree. “We believe that an effective safety program and injury and illness reduction program requires both the carrot and the stick,” he said. “We have both of those in our policies and procedures.”

Norton also encouraged Ayers to provide more complete records to the OOC. At present, the AOC tells the OOC about injury and illness rates, but not the nature or cause.

OOC general counsel Peter Eveleth said having the complete information would help the office “focus on those areas which are causing the most injuries and illnesses so that we can dedicate most of our resources to those areas.” Ayers had no objection.

The hearing marked the first time that a representative from the newly formed Capitol Visitor Center union, AFSCME Local 658, testified before Congress.

Megan Burger, a tour guide at the CVC, said that since the union formed, CVC management has been much more responsive to employees’ needs, which include better inclement-weather uniforms and the ability to bring water bottles outside. Norton called the inability to do so “draconian,” and Ayers called it “inexplicable.”

Burger said tour guides can now bring water outside, and Ayers said that new uniforms are on the way. “We’ve fixed that problem and engaged employees,” Ayers said. “We’ve completely revamped the uniform process.”

Eveleth said the OOC will soon issue a report about a June incident in which a supervisor flushed a bag with white powder labeled “anthrax” down a toilet in the CVC.

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