Asbestos Lawsuit Settlement with Smithsonian Sheds Light on a National Workplace Cancer

The Smithsonian settled an asbestos lawsuit with a former employee for $233,000 and health insurance after the museum’s worker was diagnosed last year with asbestosis. The employee, Richard Pullman, 54, worked for 28 years at the museum, installing exhibits. This required drilling and sawing interior walls containing asbestos, a risk Pullman and other workers were first made aware of in 2008.

A Smithsonian spokeswoman has said that the settlement is not an admission of guilt, an odd statement given that Mr. Pullman has worked the majority of his life at the National Air and Space Museum and that inhaling asbestos, speaking realistically, the only cause of asbestosis.

Initially, Mr. Pullman was denied a worker’s compensation coverage claim for asbestosis, though he would win on appeal. He is now allowed worker’s compensation for treatment of asbestosis-related injury and benefits if he becomes disabled or dies from the disease.

An outside consultant hired for the purpose of studying the workplace hazard of asbestos found that the Smithsonian had failed to inspect buildings every three years, a common “best management practice,” and failed to keep a complete record of asbestos-containing material. The museum’s employees also lacked sufficient information on the location of, or how best to work with, asbestos-containing building materials, according to the report. The consultant report suggested better supervision for those employees who should wear respirators, clear warning signage around areas containing asbestos, and other common asbestos safety practices.

Pullman, who according to the Washington Post, had a positive employment record, was retaliated against after filing workplace safety complaints. His case prompted hearings in Congress and an internal review.

The lawsuit reveals two sad facts: The first, that only a minute amount of asbestos fibers breathed or swallowed are enough to manifest in tragic, asbestosis-caused injury. Secondly, asbestos safety standards, both in Tennessee and nationally, are not being met to the detriment not just of asbestos-exposed workers but us all who pay for these preventable workplace injuries in the form of higher costs or taxes–and sometimes with our lives.

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