Mould disaster rattles ODPEM staff
Workers threaten to sue state agency over illnesses believed caused by infestation
Staff at the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM) are becoming increasingly agitated over health risks at the New Kingston building from which they work and are fixing to file a lawsuit against the agency seeking redress...
Staff at the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM) are becoming increasingly agitated over health risks at the New Kingston building from which they work and are fixing to file a lawsuit against the agency seeking redress for illnesses and mounting medical bills.
The workers told The Sunday Gleaner that years of complaints were ignored until a recent test found mould in several sections of the Haining Road office, including in large sections of the dry wall and the central air-conditioning vents.
Although a sewage overflow forced a two-day closure of the office in January, employees said that a leaking roof, which has been in disrepair for years and which provides the conditions for mould growth, has been neglected by ODPEM.
They have complained of excessive coughing, breathing problems, sinus infections, asthma, runny eyes and noses, headaches and fatigue, causing several of them to exhaust their sick leave allocations. They also claimed to have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills – beyond their health insurance allocation – and are still required to work from office.
The agency’s management is said to have dismissed the complaints, and in one instance an employee’s frequent reports of illness and resultant sick leave was deemed “mental illness”, which led to her resignation.
Now at their wits’ end, the workers, who are represented by the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU) and the Jamaica Civil Service Association (JCSA), say their only remaining option is to sue the State for distress, negligence and a failure to protect the employees by providing a safe work environment, among other points.
“We are seriously contemplating a lawsuit. We have been complaining for years,” one senior staffer at the country’s chief disaster management agency told The Sunday Gleaner. “In March, 60 members signed a letter demanding that an air-quality test be conducted, and that is among the reasons they were forced to act. But too many persons who work here were having the same problem, so it must be common to here. And it’s not that we didn’t tell them.”
Adding to their contention is that the recently commissioned air quality and mould report, a copy of which was obtained by our news team, reportedly does not present findings on the first floor, which houses the accounts department, main lobby, library, telecommunications unit, the national emergency operations centre, and the Organization of American States (OAS).
Mould was also discovered in the central air-condition vents shared with the OAS.
“The issue of mold on the windows also brought to us the concern of the indoor air quality and health of staff members as well as their productivity levels,” read a section of the 44-page report, which gave a room-by-room summary of the findings.
“The building’s HVAC system appears to have a deficiency in providing air supply to all the areas occupied by staff. ... These must be addressed in order to be up to OHSA standards,” it added, referencing the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
The director of project office as well as those occupied by the senior director of information and training, the deputy director general, HR director, and even the sick bay were among several areas flagged for different types of mould, fungus colonies, air quality concerns, leaks – including one near the electrical circuit in the internal audit area – and immediate action recommended.
Things reportedly got heated two weeks ago during a staff meeting to discuss the findings of the report, when Acting Director General Richard Thompson reportedly said he was unaware of the problem. However, a July 2020 email to staff from Angela Whyte, then acting senior director, acknowledged both leak and air-quality issues. In the email, which was seen by The Sunday Gleaner, she pleaded for understanding, saying that the matter was being addressed. However, since then, nothing has been done, the workers said.
“Everybody knows about the problems because people have been complaining for years about being sick, and knowing that it was the building that was making them sick. But when the acting director general said no one told him this, the staff told him it was a lie, as his former secretary constantly complained and had been sent on sick leave,” said one of several Sunday Gleaner sources.
NO ACTION TAKEN
BITU President General Senator Kavan Gayle said that when the union became aware of the issue, it wrote to ODPEM, urging the agency to take the necessary steps to fix the issues.
He expressed disappointment that no action was taken.
“That is why it is important that the occupational health and safety legislation be enacted, as provisions for the protection of employees in relation to such hazard are included. But there was apparently no duty of care on how the situation was handled. It is also important that employees be taken out of the area until the situation changes,” Gayle told The Sunday Gleaner last week.
The JCSA said it was unaware of the problem.
Although President O’Neil Grant said he was first learning of the issue when approached by The Sunday Gleaner, he urged ODPEM not to “play around with people’s health”.
When the matter was first raised in 2018, staff were reportedly told that a secondary location for ODPEM was to be identified if issues persisted and prevented staff from being able to perform their duties.
Thompson has not responded to Sunday Gleaner questions sent to him two weeks ago, despite Marsha Henry Martin, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development, instructing him to provide an “appropriately accurate response” and advise the board.
Thompson has acted as director general on several occasions and his current stint in the role dates back to April 2021, following the departure of Leslie Harrow.
A general practitioner with knowledge of mould impact on humans said, “It is not good for mould and humans to be in the same space. It will impact persons in different ways, and it will not be good. People are going to get sick.”
ODPEM took over the former USAID building in 2010.