Capitol Getting Thorough Safety Review

Posted October 25, 2004 at 6:11pm

Sometime early next year the Capitol campus will get its most comprehensive report card to date on the safety of its buildings. And if it’s anything like past assessments, a few critical areas may not receive passing grades.

The Office of Compliance is required by law to conduct health and safety inspections of the campus every two years and submit the findings to the Congressional leadership. What differentiates the overview undertaken during this Congress is the breadth and depth of the inspections.

“What we are doing this year is to do a baseline survey of the conditions of all the buildings on Capitol Hill so we will have a complete snapshot of what is going on,” said Office of Compliance General Counsel Peter Eveleth. “Our inspections this year are probably the most comprehensive that we have done.”

This year’s inspections are the first since Eveleth became general counsel in the spring of 2003. His predecessors released four reports, beginning in 1996.

Those reports found major safety violations and significant deficiencies in the Capitol’s emergency preparedness. The most recent, released in December 2002, generated intense scrutiny, as it cited major shortcomings in communications and preparations for handling a chemical or biological attack.

Although it revealed virtually nothing more alarming than had been contained in past reports — then-General Counsel Dennis Duffy warned as early as 1996 that Congress had a “fragmented, largely uncoordinated and insufficient” emergency plan — heightened tension about security and controversy about its release helped it create a minor frenzy.

But like past reports, the one to be released next year will probably also chart significant progress in Congress’ life-safety conditions. Although the Capitol still does not meet code in many areas, conditions have improved substantially since the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act applied 11 workplace and safety laws to the legislative branch for the first time.

The CAA directs the general counsel to identify violations, describe steps necessary to achieve abatement and assess the associated risks to the health and safety of employees every Congress.

This year, Eveleth’s office has devised a new system to track violations and abatements much more efficiently, allowing the small agency to focus its limited resources.

“We’re acquiring some software that will enable us … to check the progress of the abatement much faster,” Eveleth explained in an interview. “We can help prioritize the ones that need to be fixed right away.”

Eveleth said he hopes the new process will better allow his team to help employing offices and the Architect of the Capitol to compose next year’s budget requests by delineating the most critical modifications that need to be made to infrastructure and training.

To that end, the general counsel’s office has adopted practices used in the military to rank hazards by the degree to which they could injure or kill someone and their likelihood of occurring. These “risk assessment codes” are assigned to everything from a lack of a fire door to a malfunctioning electrical outlet.

The Defense Department uses categories one through five, with one representing imminent and potentially catastrophic dangers. The Office of Compliance has created a scale of one through four. (The agency does not identify hazards that have insignificant risks, category five at DOD.) Category four RACs would either be unlikely to occur or relatively low in severity, or some combination thereof.

Under the system, for example, an uninspected or unmaintained fire extinguisher located in a sprinkler-protected area would garner a RAC of four, because although the risks of a fire occurring without easy access to an extinguisher are not insignificant, the likelihood of devastating consequences are mitigated by the presence of the sprinklers. However, if that same malfunctioning fire extinguisher was located in an area not protected by sprinklers, the RAC would rise to a three.

“That is part of our function and the purpose of the biannual inspections, to let Congress know where problems lie,” Eveleth said. “Then the Architect can explain what it will cost to abate them.

Eveleth added that structural changes, such as enclosing stairwells to contain fires, are multimillion-dollar projects, but other fixes are quite simple and inexpensive.

Exemplifying that dichotomy is emergency egress for people with disabilities, one of many focuses of this year’s inspections.

In July, the Labor Department released new emergency evacuation guidelines for disabled employees, and although they are not mandatory for the executive branch or Congress, the Office of Compliance plans to suggest improvements in training and facilities to accommodate people with disabilities during an emergency.

“There are very few exits here on Capitol HIll that would allow a disabled person to get out,” OOC inspector Steve Mallinger said. “A lot of these buildings only have one exit” with a ramp or other accommodations.

Retrofitting old buildings to make them easily accessible to those with disabilities is often an expensive endeavor. And although the Architect has made some structural changes in recent years, many gaps remain. So beyond physical modifications, the Office of Compliance also is looking to ensure individual offices’ emergency action plans include training and planning so everyone can get out of a building if necessary.

“Some of them have and some of them have not,” Mallinger said.

The emergency action plans — a pre-9/11 construct that drew considerable attention after the widely panned evacuation three years ago — were a primarily focus of the last round of inspections under former General Counsel Gary Green.

Green noted in his 2002 report that individual office’s emergency plans had improved considerably since before the terrorist attacks — when most offices did not have a plan in place at all — but significant deficiencies remained.

“Now a lot of [offices] have them, now what we are doing is going through and reviewing them fairly carefully,” Mallinger said.

Although the health and safety inspections have been a source of contention in the past, Mallinger said he’s optimistic about much of his office’s work.

“Even though we are a regulatory agency, we’re all working towards the same goal. I am quite hopeful about some of the things that have started to happen.”