Feds checking for violations of safety laws at census office

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has opened an investigation into the U.S. Census Bureau office in Grand Junction, which earlier this year was inundated by fumes from a marijuana-growing operation in the same building.

A person who worked in the building at 573 W. Crete Circle, meanwhile, said as many as a dozen claims might be filed by census employees affected by pesticide fumes from the nearby operation, which shared a ventilation system with the census office.

The inspection is intended to determine if there were violations of federal workplace-safety laws as a result of the fumes flowing into the offices, Herb Gibson, area director for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said Friday.

The agency’s inspection “is open, and I would say it will stay open for a few more weeks,” Gibson said.

Inspectors have visited the census office, where Gibson said officials are in the process of making modifications to the ventilation system.

A Mesa County grand jury last week declined to indict the three people who owned the marijuana operation.

Still, a former office employee, who asked not to be identified, said some people who worked there, including the employee, have suffered ill effects from the fumes, which were those of pesticides used to protect the marijuana plants, census officials said.

Even though officials point to the pesticides, other odors were unmistakable, the employee said.

“You walk in the front door, and you feel like you’re at a Bob Marley concert,” the employee said.

Even after leaving the office, the employee said pain and coughing developed to the point that the employee had to be hospitalized for several days.

“I was screaming in pain” and forced to double over by the coughing, the employee said. “It felt like it was burning me from the inside.”

The employee has been in contact with other people from the office who have been hospitalized. Some are preparing or have prepared workers’ compensation claims as a result of their exposures in the office, the employee said.

Officials with the census and federal Office of Workers Compensation said they couldn’t discuss claims from the Grand Junction office.

There is “a legitimate concern with invading the privacy of our workers — given the fact it is such a small office, there is a particular concern that providing any such information could lead to an improper disclosure that would lead to an invasion of the individual’s privacy,” Mark Hellfritz, assistant regional census manager in Denver, wrote in an e-mail.

The employee said the Census Bureau was contemplating a civil suit against the marijuana-growing operation, but Hellfritz said the bureau “is not considering any actions” against the marijuana-operation owners.

OSHA would look at any workers’ compensation claims as part of its inspection, Gibson said.

In addition to coughing and respiratory problems, the employee said other symptoms included migraine headaches, extreme pain in swallowing and even breathing, and delirium.

Although the symptoms have eased since leaving the hospital, “I still have a whole bottle of morphine,” the employee said. “I’m saving it in case it happens again.”


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