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IRB Employees Go Back to Work; Health Probe Starts

Sept. 11, 2008 — Many of the 22 Internal Revenue Bureau (IRB) employees who underwent emergency evaluation at the Roy Lester Schneider Hospital on Wednesday were back on the job Thursday, according to the bureau’s director, Gizette Thomas.
She said more were expected to return Friday, but two employees may be out for several days.
The workers began streaming into the hospital Wednesday morning, complaining of chest pain, shortness of breath, irritated eyes, and itchy or burning skin, according to a statement released by the hospital. The statement said 20 were released without treatment; two others were treated — one for hypertension and one for asthma.
Operations at the bureau's Mandela Circle office were temporarily curtailed this summer when a mold problem was discovered, and efforts since then have sought to rid the workplace of potential environmental hazards. Thomas said she believes the air quality problem has been resolved, but some of the bureau's 102 employees are apparently skeptical.
"I am aware that the employees, or some of them have sought legal advice, and I’m not sure if that has anything to do with what they’re doing at this point," she said, referring to the hospital visits. "They did not present it to me as a job action."
An investigation is underway by the V.I. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
"We have not been in since Wednesday," said Labor's Glen J. Smith, a deputy commissioner. "But we were in there before, and we are going to be returning. We have been there a number of times. Of course if one employee is getting sick, that is one too many."
The problems, according to Thomas, began June 3 when several employees complained of an odor from an air vent. She said they were sent to the hospital and treated for respiratory issues. Following that, OSHA made an assessment of the premises and air quality testing was conducted by the Environmental Concepts firm, Thomas explained.
"The results of that indicated air quality was poor in building and we needed to do mold decontamination work," Thomas said. "As far as I am aware, our building was tested and retested and the results indicate that the air quality is excellent," Thomas said.
"Therefore for those who have sought medical attention at the hospital, I cannot comment as to whether or not the health concerns are from within my building or outside of my building, because the tests done by professionals indicate the results are fine."
Thomas said she, herself, is at the facility "two to three times a week."
June's discovery temporarily curtailed operations while the Bureau replaced insulation, installed new air filters and introduced fresh air into the air cooling system, as well as replacing all fiberglass vents with metal ones, because "employees were itching," Thomas said, noting that testing soon afterward turned up no evidence of mold.
However, continuing complaints last summer prompted another scouring of the premises when some remaining fiberglass insulation turned up. Environmental Concepts returned to perform what is known as High Efficiency Particulate Arresting or HEPA scrubbing and vacuuming procedures, Thomas said.
"Following that, we retested the air again, and it came back saying excellent air quality, no molds, no fungal problems, no asbestos," Thomas explained. "The…latest samples pulled on Aug. 30…indicate the air quality is excellent."
The Labor Department's deputy commissioner said Thomas has been cooperating fully with the OSHA investigation. The territory's OSHA director, Jason Ellick, could not say when the investigation will conclude.
"This is an ongoing situation," said Ellick, "and yes, we are taking it very seriously."
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