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FAA Botches Jacksonville Roofing Project, Fails to Clean It Up and Now Has Seven Ill Controllers Unable to Return to Work - (3/27/2007)

CONTACT:     Mike Flanagan, 904-705-4760                                                                       

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A botched roofing project and failed Federal Aviation Administration oversight and cleanup efforts have left air traffic controllers at Jacksonville Tower and Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) exposed to toxic fumes for a month, leaving seven of them still unable to return to work because of respiratory system problems, chemical burns to eyes, nose and throats, and other ailments, and exacerbating an already difficult working situation due to understaffing at the facility. 

Without these seven controllers, the facility is left with 37 fully certified controllers and one trainee to handle the busiest traffic period of the year. The majority of controllers currently are being forced to work six-day weeks and/or 10-hour days due to the tight staffing. 

On February 28, construction began on the roof of the building that abuts the control tower at Jacksonville International Airport. Work was done at night so as not to interfere with the busiest part of controllers’ work days handling traffic. But at 5:30 a.m. the next morning, controllers working the midnight shift began to notice a black substance oozing down from the ceiling tiles and lighting fixtures. The smell was like tar and it covered one-third of the building.   

The contractor doing the work came in an immediately cleaned up what was visible, but the damage was done, controllers say. Over the next 10 days, the odors permeating the facility were sickening.  Controllers began to suffer from various side effects from the odors: Dizziness, nausea, skin tingling, and chest pains.  Local FAA management was approached repeatedly about this issue, but they refused to acknowledge that the harmful vapors existed in the TRACON part of the facility.   

By the 10th day of the ordeal, controllers were beginning to suffer the effects of being exposed to these chemical odors for a long period of time.  In fact, two controllers had to be seen by the airport’s fire and rescue squad.  On March 11, the contractor removed ceiling tiles, rugs, and other materials. The TRACON is now wrapped in plastic and is under positive air pressure, much like a quarantine room.  Air samples are being taken with the doors wide open and fans running. But it remains a serious health risk situation and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association is asking the FAA to take care of the matter as soon as possible. 

“We don’t think asking for a safe working environment for controllers tasked with ensuring aviation safety is an unreasonable request for an agency like the FAA that claims safety is its mission,” NATCA President Patrick Forrey said. "It's become painfully clear that the FAA would rather ignore and deny problems like disgusting work environments and staffing shortages than address them when they first appear.  Evidently FAA management defines ‘sovereign immunity’ to mean not accountable!" 

Added NATCA Southern Region Vice President Victor Santore: “The response from management regarding the exposure to this chemical is abhorrent.  Several days went by as controllers became more ill, and the initial management response was to attempt convince the employees that either they were not ill, that there were no fumes in the control room, and to coerce them into not requesting the proper Department of Labor paperwork used for on-the-job injuries. 

“Employees requesting CA-1 and CA-16 forms were intimidated, denied the forms, and eventually, top FAA brass had to intervene in order to allow the employees to seek medical attention due to their symptoms.  Facility management denied that there were fumes in the TRACON, insisting that they were everywhere but the TRACON.”

Santore said this is the same facility that just discovered it had been exposed to an asbestos release that had gone unreported. “The employees feel that the FAA does not care about their safety, health and welfare,” Santore said. “A formal FAA investigation into what went wrong this time, and a willingness to hold those officials accountable whose work performance may have been careless or negligent, will go a long way toward restoring the confidence of these employees.” 

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