Smithsonian Museum Embattled With Employee Over Asbestos Exposure

The Smithsonian is one of our nation’s most treasured museums. It is also one of the countless buildings in the country that was built with asbestos-containing materials. And though the presence of such hazardous materials has been known for more than 17 years, upper management has been accused of failing to raise awareness and follow proper maintenance procedures in accordance with OSHA regulations.

The accusations come largely from Richard Pullman, a maintenance worker and lighting specialist who has worked at the museum for more than 27 years. In a 2008 employee safety meeting, Pullman was shocked to learn that asbestos was present in walls throughout the museum. These walls are the same ones that Pullman has been drilling into, cutting and sanding for more than two decades.

This was alarming to Pullman, and rightly so. Acts such as these that cause asbestos particles to become airborne and inhaled dramatically increase the risk of lung diseases such as mesothelioma. Following the meeting, Pullman visited a lung specialist (he had already been experiencing shortness of breath) and the doctor diagnosed him with asbestosis.

Shortly after the safety meeting, Pullman also filed federal workplace safety complaints with OSHA regarding failures of the museum to notify, train and monitor employees regarding the risks of asbestos at the museum. In a response sent to The Washington Post, OSHA indicated that the museum should have “cordoned off the area, posted warning signs, and used an impermeable dropcloth, wet methods and local ventilation when working on the walls.”

Despite these incriminating facts, the Smithsonian claims no wrongdoing. Several tests performed at the museum have indicated that asbestos levels at the museum are well below legal limits. However, a 1992 asbestos testing commissioned by the Smithsonian found between 1 and 5 percent asbestos in several walls – a level that mandates notification and complex cleanup requirements under OSHA regulations. A recent independent study commissioned by Pullman himself seems to confirm this test, resulting in chrysolite levels of as much as 13.7 percent.

The employee and the museum are now embittered over the matter. Pullman has filed several worker compensation claims, but has so far been denied. And though the Smithsonian has taken great strides in removing asbestos dust and other hazardous products from the museum, they continue to deny the fact that regulations were broken or Pullman was unnecessarily placed at risk.

It should be noted that visitors to the museum are likely in no danger of unhealthy asbestos exposure. The material is only toxic when airborne, making maintenance workers the most likely to be affected. For more information on the story, please refer to the in-depth article at the Washington Post.