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Smithsonian settles asbestos lawsuit

Ex-employee gets $233,000 and health insurance

By James V. Grimaldi and Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 10, 2009

An outside consultant urged improvements in the Smithsonian Institution's handling of asbestos in its buildings, calling for changes in procedures and training, and inspections to locate the toxic substance throughout the sprawling museum complex.

Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough ordered the study this year after The Washington Post reported in March that a former exhibit specialist who worked on walls containing asbestos had been sickened during his 28-year career at the National Air and Space Museum.

The worker, Richard Pullman, 54, has settled a lawsuit with the institution for $233,000, according to records obtained by The Post this month from the Department of Labor under the Freedom of Information Act.

Pullman said he frequently sawed and drilled into interior walls to install and update exhibits for more than 25 years. In 2008, he and other workers were told for the first time that the walls contained asbestos, Pullman said. Asbestosis, a lung disease linked to breathing asbestos fibers, was diagnosed in Pullman by his physicians.

Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said, "There's no admission of guilt" in the settlement.

Clough, a civil engineer by training, noted in an e-mail to employees this week that the report, by engineering consultant URS, calls for "a number of improvements." He emphasized the report's positive findings.

"Our written policies and procedures are typical of a federal agency and our efforts exceed those of most commercial entities, according to the report," he said in the e-mail, which the Smithsonian provided to The Post.

Clough is scheduled to testify at an oversight hearing Thursday before the House Appropriations Committee panel that monitors the Smithsonian. St. Thomas said there were no plans to bring up the report in his testimony.

"The recommendations like improving records maintenance and communication in no way indicates that the Smithsonian is unsafe for its employees," St. Thomas said.

Pullman's settlement was signed in July by Air and Space Museum Director John R. Dailey, but it was filed under seal at the Labor Department's administrative court.

The engineer's report, which the Smithsonian gave to The Post, said that the institution failed to use the most reliable method of asbestos testing, which would "afford greater protection for employees, contractors, and the public."

While the Smithsonian had conducted baseline studies to locate asbestos in facilities years ago, the institution had failed to reinspect buildings every three years, a commonly accepted "best management practice," the report said.

The Smithsonian also failed to keep a complete record on asbestos-containing material. Workers often did not have adequate information on the location of asbestos or how to work around it, according to the report.

The consultants suggested improved training, better tracking of employees who should wear respirators and the posting of clear signs around areas containing asbestos. "Employee training appears to be one of the areas in most need of improvement," the report concluded.

Smithsonian spokeswoman Samia Brennan said more than 800 workers have attended asbestos classes in 2009 and about 50 workers have taken the offer to see an asbestos-disease physician contracted by the institution.

Under the terms of his settlement, Pullman received $154,000 in August and will receive $79,000 in severance pay. The Smithsonian also agreed to pay 65 percent of his health insurance for nine months. The terms prohibit Pullman and the Smithsonian from disparaging each other.

Pullman won an appeal over the summer on his worker's compensation coverage claim for asbestosis. The claim was initially denied a year ago. The decision means he can be reimbursed for asbestosis-related treatment and can get benefits if he becomes disabled or dies from the disease, said his attorney, David J. Marshall.

Pullman contacted The Post in 2008 after learning that joint compound in the Air and Space Museum's walls contained asbestos. He also began to file a series of occupational-safety complaints. Pullman, who had an otherwise positive employment record, was disciplined after filing the workplace safety complaints. Those sanctions were deleted from his personnel file as part of the settlement.

His case prompted hearings in Congress and an internal review. It also prompted contract steamfitters who had worked at the National Museum of American History to contact The Post to allege that asbestos was mishandled during that building's $85 million renovation.

The Smithsonian said the problems were corrected.

Marshall said his client was pleased with the settlement. "Mr. Pullman feels that he has done his part in the fight for a safer workplace and for the right of workers to advocate the same without fear of retaliation," Marshall said.

The Post reported earlier this year that in 1992, a consulting firm hired by the Smithsonian, Versar, found 1 to 5 percent asbestos in the joint compound used in two dozen Air and Space museum rooms. A level above 1 percent is supposed to trigger worker-safety requirements. The report said the material would be harmless if undisturbed. The report urged that workers be alerted, but the Smithsonian has acknowledged that warnings rarely were issued.

Thousands of pages of other documents, which fall under the Smithsonian's public-records policy and were released to The Post over the summer, confirm another of Pullman's complaints: Construction and plan specifications did not always notify outside contractors that asbestos in the wallboard joint compound triggered the safety precautions.

Among those specifications were the 2007 plans to replace the electrical system. The plans state incorrectly that the amount of asbestos in the joint compound "would constitute less than one percent."

The Smithsonian acknowledged that warnings about asbestos in the walls were not passed down over the years, but said there was no evidence that asbestos was released in the building.

Pullman had alleged that the workers during those two projects had drilled numerous holes throughout the building without using methods to prevent asbestos from floating through the museum. He said debris was allowed to blow throughout the museum. He secretly collected and tested dust samples, some of which showed high concentrations of asbestos dust.

The Smithsonian dismissed the results of Pullman's tests and conducted new air tests that found no problems.

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