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Senator seeks VA facility probe amid whistleblower claims

December 15, 2020 GMT
Veterans Affairs Police guard the entrance to a maintenance facility after an apparent steam explosion in a maintenance building at a Veterans Affairs hospital in West Haven, Conn., Friday, Nov. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Robert Bumsted)
Veterans Affairs Police guard the entrance to a maintenance facility after an apparent steam explosion in a maintenance building at a Veterans Affairs hospital in West Haven, Conn., Friday, Nov. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Robert Bumsted)

Connecticut U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Tuesday he’s seeking an investigation by the Veterans’ Administration Office of the Inspector General into alleged unsafe working conditions at the West Haven VA hospital, where two workers were killed last month by the rapid release of hot water vapor during maintenance work on the facility’s steam system.

The Democrat told reporters he recently received 75 pages of documents from two whistleblowers that include “powerful evidence that complaints of unsafe conditions were either disregarded or dismissed,” including more than one complaint raised by one of the men who died in the Nov. 13 accident.

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“These whistleblower complaints are so deeply concerning and searing as potential evidence of a failure to respond to legitimate complaints about unsafe work,” Blumenthal said. “I am heartbroken that such unsafe working conditions may have contributed to the explosion that caused the deaths of these two dedicated workers.”

The documents, which have been provided to the inspector general’s office, include complaints made by multiple VA employees and others, Blumenthal said. One email was from VA maintenance worker Euel Sims, a 60-year-old Navy veteran who was killed. Blumenthal said the documents include evidence that Sims raised more than one complaint about safety problems with his superiors.

Joseph O’Donnell, a 36-year-old private contractor, was also killed in the steam pipe accident. Three other workers were injured, officials said.

Pamela Redmond, public affairs officer for the VA Connecticut Healthcare System, said hospital officials were unable to comment on Blumenthal’s request for an investigation or the whistleblowers’ accusations, due to an ongoing investigation.

“Our prayers are with the families of the victims of this explosion,” she said in an email. “We are cooperating fully with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which is leading this investigation, and remain committed to ensuring we provide a safe environment for our staff and patients.”

Alfred Montoya Jr., director of the VA Connecticut Healthcare System, previously said Sims and O’Donnell were in the basement of a small outer building and had just finished routine maintenance on a leaky pipe when they died. He said the accident happened as the pipe was being refilled with steam.

In releasing preliminary findings of the investigation, state police said the episode initially described as an explosion was a “pressure event” within the steam system.

“This event caused super-heated water vapor to rapidly fill the room and building,” police said. “The two occupants working on the system were not able to evacuate the room and suffered fatal injuries. There was no apparent criminal aspect.”

The building where the men were killed houses the hospital’s labor shops, such as carpentry and plumbing, a hospital spokesperson said.

Both Blumenthal and U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, a fellow Democrat, have called on the federal government to approve major renovations at the aging hospital. It was originally built in the 1950s and underwent a renovation in the 1990s.

Blumenthal said he wants the VA’s inspector general to look into whether “inadequate resources provided to the facility” contributed to the alleged unsafe working conditions. He said the whistleblower complaints are “an alarm call for reconstructing” the facility.