Working conditions in the crawlspaces and utility tunnels under Capitol Hill are a fair approximation of hell. Chunks of concrete fall from crumbling ceilings, the temperature can rise to 150 degrees Fahrenheit, and arsenic fumes caused by welding, along with friable asbestos fibers, poison the air. The irony is that the maintenance workers whose job it is to keep members of Congress comfortable and supplied with clean air and water have been denied the right to safe working conditions, as well as the right to complain about them, by the very Congress they serve. With the selfishness, callousness, indifference and arrogance that has characterized the federal government for nearly thirty years, Congress has exempted its own employees from the rights and protections that nearly all other public and private employees take for granted. Unfortunately, these workers report to the Architect of the Capitol–appointed by a president who for six years has certainly not demonstrated unswerving concern for the working people of America.
In 2000, the Office of Compliance took largely symbolic and ineffective action against the Architect for failure to follow OSHA guidelines for asbestos worker safety. Despite this, conditions for these workers have only gotten worse. Workers finally appealed directly to Congress and the public via the media. In retaliation, the Office of the Architect began an aggressive campaign of harassment and intimidation, attempting to silence the workers. Finally, Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) owned up to the fact that Congress had “…a responsibility to these [tunnel] workers and a responsibility to this nation to set a good example when it comes to worker safety,” adding that Congress itself had set a poor example. In December of 2006, the ten maintenance workers who keep buildings on Capitol Hill running were presented with the Callaway Award for their courage in speaking out. Meanwhile, the Office of the Architect has refused to comment. All of this has been of small comfort to some for the workers, for whom medical examinations have revealed that asbestos has already taken its toll.