Asbestos in GSA Buildings:

Improved Data Would Enhance Oversight

GAO-19-45R: Published: Nov 19, 2018. Publicly Released: Dec 19, 2018.

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Lori Rectanus
(202) 512-2834
rectanusl@gao.gov

 

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Certain building materials used before 1981 are more likely to contain asbestos. To facilitate oversight, the General Services Administration keeps a database of information on asbestos in its buildings. 

We found that asbestos-related data were not entered for 66% of GSA’s office buildings. A GSA official stated that this was because the database’s interface was difficult to use and only one person at GSA typically enters the data. We recommended, among other things, that GSA enter the missing data in its database.

Building Materials That May Contain Asbestos

Roofing, pipes, caulk, wall plaster, ceiling/floor tiles, cooling/heating systems, and insulation can all contain asbestos.

Roofing, pipes, caulk, wall plaster, ceiling/floor tiles, cooling/heating systems, and insulation can all contain asbestos.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Lori Rectanus
(202) 512-2834
rectanusl@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

The General Services Administration (GSA) captures information on the location and condition of asbestos in its buildings, but lacks the necessary information to conduct national oversight. GSA policy requires that the agency survey all of its buildings constructed before 1998 to identify asbestos, enter this information into its asbestos database, and re-inspect the condition of asbestos-containing materials on an annual basis. However, GAO found that asbestos-related survey data were not entered for 66 percent (289 of 436) of GSA's office buildings. A GSA official stated that the information had not been entered because the database's interface was difficult to use and only one designated person at GSA typically enters the data. Additionally, GAO found that the database interface lacks a mechanism to indicate when or if annual re-inspections took place. While GSA has proposed an update to the interface to address these issues in fiscal year 2019, the agency has not yet funded the proposed changes. Federal internal control standards state that agencies should have information systems that allow them to meet their objectives and respond to risks. Because decisions have not been made to either fund GSA's plan to address the shortcomings in the IRIS database or develop alternatives in the absence of approving the plan, GSA does not have an information system that can fully capture data on asbestos in a timely fashion. As a result, GSA is not well-positioned to oversee the management of asbestos in its facilities.

The Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) establishes and enforces regulations to protect all workers--including federal workers--from asbestos exposure in the workplace. Asbestos-related violations found in federal agency buildings are relatively uncommon. For example, of the 4,264 OSHA inspections of federal agencies from fiscal year 2013 through February 28, 2018, 72 inspections (less than 2 percent) identified asbestos-related violations. Furthermore, the Department of Labor's workers' compensation claims data from fiscal year 2013 through March 2018 show that federal-worker asbestos claims were less than .1 percent of claims, and usually occurred among industrial occupations instead of office workers. 

Why GAO Did This Study

Asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral fiber, was commonly used in construction materials until it was linked to serious illness and therefore fell out of widespread use. According to OSHA, certain building materials used prior to 1981 are likely to contain asbestos. More than three-quarters of federally-owned office space in buildings constructed before this date falls under the custody and control of GSA, which provides real-estate management and other administrative support services for the federal government.

GAO was asked to provide information on asbestos in federal office buildings. This report (1) assesses the extent to which GSA collects and maintains information on the location and condition of asbestos in its office buildings, and (2) describes regulations that are designed to protect workers from asbestos, as well as the circumstances under which federal workers have been exposed. GAO reviewed GSA's policy on asbestos documentation, and analyzed information collected by GSA on the presence of asbestos in the office buildings under its custody and control.

GAO also reviewed pertinent laws, regulations, and data from the Department of Labor. Specifically, GAO analyzed data on asbestos-related workplace violations in federal facilities from fiscal year 2013 through February 2018, and worker compensation claims from fiscal year 2013 through March 2018.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that GSA take action to remedy the asbestos-related shortcomings in the database, including entering the missing data and implementing a mechanism to track the re-inspection of asbestos-containing materials.

For more information, contact Lori Rectanus at (202) 512-2834 or rectanusl@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: In March 2019, GSA indicated it will address this recommendation by updating and enhancing the asbestos module in IRIS to address the issues identified in our report. GSA intends to allocate available funding and complete the changes to IRIS by the end of fiscal year 2019. We will continue to follow-up with GSA about the status of this recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of GSA should remedy the asbestos-related data shortcomings in IRIS, either by approving the proposed update to IRIS and its associated funding or by implementing an alternative plan to enter asbestos data via the existing interface. This alternative plan could include, for example, training more individuals to use the current database functions. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: General Services Administration

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Asbestos was commonly used in construction materials until 1981, when it was linked to serious illness caused by inhaling the fibers. More than three-quarters of federally-owned office space in buildings constructed before 1981 falls under the custody and control of the General Services Administration (GSA), which provides real-estate management and other administrative support services for the federal government. GSA's asbestos policy requires that the agency conduct an annual surveillance exam-i.e., a re-inspection-of asbestos-containing material in its buildings to ensure that it has not degraded or become damaged, which could release dangerous fibers. Following a re-inspection, a GSA official should enter any changes into the database GSA uses to track asbestos. In 2018, GAO reported that this database lacked a data field to capture the date that asbestos was re-inspected, and GSA had not developed another mechanism to track re-inspections. Without a mechanism to track re-inspections, management did not have assurance that the re-inspections were taking place as required. If such re-inspections are not conducted-or are not conducted at the annual interval prescribed by GSA policy-federal office workers could be exposed to damaged asbestos fibers that are unnoticed. Therefore, GAO recommended that GSA develop a mechanism to track the date of asbestos re-inspections. In 2019, GSA updated its asbestos database's capabilities to include an asbestos module that is capable of recording and documenting major asbestos events, including the date and findings of re-inspections. The database displays the most current re-inspection, and does not override the previous re-inspection information. Previous re-inspections can be obtained by creating a report within the database. With this update, GSA has better assurance that the re-inspections are taking place as required..

    Recommendation: The Administrator of GSA should implement a mechanism to track the re-inspection date for asbestos-containing materials. This mechanism could take the form of the proposed update to the IRIS database, or another tracking method. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: General Services Administration

 

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