Hill Offices Lauded for Safety Steps

Posted February 23, 2010 at 6:32pm

Thousands of fire and safety hazards lurk inside Capitol Hill’s crowded offices, where staffers shamelessly link together extension cords and arrange their desks in impenetrable formations.

But over the past few years, the Office of Compliance has worked with Members to fix creative outlet usage, hazardous electrical equipment and careless interior decoration. Next week, OOC officials will honor 154 Members whose offices have no hazards; in 2006, that number was seven.

“In the past, we’ve found serious fire hazards such as blocked sprinkler heads, stacks of paper on heaters, fire doors obstructed by furniture, and outlets with exposed live wires,” OOC General Counsel Peter Eveleth said in a statement. “We are not talking about paper cuts, or too many extension cords strung together in a daisy chain. We are talking about serious hazards that have plagued Congressional offices for years.”

The OOC was founded after the passage of the Congressional Accountability Act in 1995, which requires that Congress adhere to certain federal safety and workplace rights laws. By that time, Congressional office buildings were old, overstuffed and rarely received maintenance work. The result: a plethora of unchecked safety hazards.

But the OOC has been unrelenting in recent years — so much so that its Congressional overseers have questioned whether its standards are over the top for old buildings filled with fire-resistant marble. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a Safe Office Award winner, once asked OOC officials if “applying the gold standard to the legislative branch is appropriate.”

Still, the OOC performs biennial checks of almost every corner of the 17 million square feet of legislative branch buildings in Washington, D.C. For the 110th Congress, the office found 9,200 hazards, which was 30 percent less than the previous Congress. The average number of hazards in individual Member offices also decreased, from a high of eight in the 109th Congress to 1.75.

OOC Executive Director Tamara Chrisler credited the improvement to the instillment of a “culture of safety” in the legislative branch and the partnership of the Architect of the Capitol and the House and Senate employment council.

“It’s really a collective effort that serves as a role model for effectively reducing” Occupational Safety and Health Administration hazards, she said. “The increase in awards this Congress is a real tribute to their concentrated efforts across Capitol Hill to make the Congressional workplace safer for everyone.”

On March 3, the OOC will celebrate its progress in abating such hazards by presenting the Safe Office Awards, which honor the 64 Senators and 90 Representatives whose offices have no hazards. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who has won the award twice, will give a speech at the ceremony, which begins at 1 p.m. in the Dirksen Senate Office Building Auditorium, Room SD-G50. “As a farmer and as a guy with seven fingers, I know firsthand the importance of safety wherever you work,” Tester said.