Architect Seeks Exemption From CAA Regulations

Posted February 9, 2004 at 4:02pm

The Architect of the Capitol has requested authority to write building and fire codes for Congressional structures, but a key oversight agency is raising concerns about whether the regulations would allow the AOC to live outside the Congressional Accountability Act.

Although the proposed wording specifically says the new mandate would be “subject to” the CAA, it would essentially establish the Architect — and not the independent Office of Compliance — as the controlling authority.

Because the OOC enforces Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards, many of which would potentially overlap with the AOC’s fire and building codes, the language provides a possible avenue for the Architect to “provide alternatives” to code compliance “if necessary to protect historic, aesthetic and other unique features,” if such alternatives provide “equivalent” protection.

“We just became aware of this provision, and therefore it’s premature for us to respond,” Office of Compliance Executive Director Bill Thompson said. “However, we are very concerned that the proposal seems to envision that the Architect will create, regulate and may override the building code and the fire code without any outside regulatory oversight.

“We are also concerned about the complex interplay between many aspects of the OSHA code and the same subject matter that might appear in a building code or fire code,” he added. “The office is interested in learning more about the proposal.”

Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman did not vet the language, part of the office’s fiscal 2005 budget request, with its respective oversight and Appropriations committees, according to spokesmen for those panels.

A spokeswoman for the Architect declined to comment on the proposal.

The Office of Compliance, created in 1995 to enforce the CAA, is charged with enforcing 12 federal labor and workplace laws for the legislative branch, among them the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

If the AOC were to write and enforce fire and building codes for Capitol Hill, they could conflict with many OSHA mandates — currently the only governing authority for Congress on such issues as fire egress and minimum safety requirements.

For example, if OSHA regulations state that a door has to be a certain width to allow egress in a fire or emergency and the fire code AOC writes says that distance can be shorter, it’s unclear who would have the final say. The question also could arise if the AOC deems a particular door historic or otherwise unique to the character of the Capitol and thus cannot be modified to meet requirements — either OSHA’s or the AOC’s own, as the proposed language would allow the Architect to “provide alternatives to prescriptive code compliance.”

OSHA regulations govern hundreds of provisions dealing with similar issues that could create jurisdictional conflict if the AOC establishes codes that are more lenient than OSHA’s.

To conduct the periodic safety and health inspections required by the CAA, the Office of Compliance contracts with former and current OSHA investigators. Among those investigators is Tom Seymour, a former deputy director of safety at OSHA and an associate professor at the University of Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute. He wrote many of the federal building and fire codes and is often dispatched by OSHA to handle sensitive investigations, including a deadly fire and a stampede at nightclubs in Rhode Island and Chicago last year.

One knowledgeable insider likened the language, if implemented, to how Congress operated before 1995, with no outside accountability.

The overlap with OSHA “would become a constant, permanent source of battle,” the source added, allowing the Architect to write his own codes and then violate them in the name of aesthetics.