One Way to Kill Air Traffic Controllers:
Lock Them in a Carbon Monoxide-Filled Room
On May 16, 2007, Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) wrote to then FAA Administrator Marion Blakey to express his dismay over several incidents involving the health and safety of air traffic controllers. “It is my sincere hope you can reassure me that the Agency continues to make the safety and well-being of its employees a matter of extreme importance, especially considering that the safety of the flying public is in their hands every minute of every day,” wrote Senator Schumer.
Citing “appallingly poor— even negligent—management decisions (that) severely sickened over a dozen of your employees and has led me to question the commitment of the Agency to provide even the most basic of needs for its employees: fresh air, first aid and time to recover from injury free from harassment and intimidation,” Schumer called particular attention to an incident at the TRACON facility in Westbury, New York. “As you are no doubt aware,” Senator Schumer began, “carbon monoxide fumes overcame at least six air traffic controllers … and two controllers were later treated for carbon monoxide poisoning.”
According to Senator Schumer and local representatives of NATCA, FAA managers not only refused to call emergency responders but also forced controllers to remain at their posts, an act that “defied comprehension. The only conclusion to draw from this response,” Schumer said, “is that the FAA was attempting to hide this incident.”
In a letter from NATCA to the FAA, the senseless event was explained this way: “On April 25, scheduled maintenance on an engine generator at the New York TRACON sent diesel exhaust fumes into the ventilation system for the building, resulting in a slow leak of deadly carbon monoxide gas. Six controllers in the Newark Area (a sector of airspace in the New York TRACON) were affected and showed the familiar signs of carbon monoxide poisoning: headache, nausea, extreme fatigue, loss of concentration and dizziness. But instead of receiving immediate attention from the facility’s operations manager, Anthony Russo, and being allowed to leave the building immediately for medical treatment and fresh air, they were forced to remain on the job and in the room. Even worse, Russo refused the controllers’ request to call the fire department to test the air in the facility and tend to the injured employees. When controllers told Russo they would call the fire department themselves, he said he would not allow them onto the premises.”
“They were prisoners of that control room!” said NATCA Local New York TRACON President Dean Iacopelli. “We had these employees who were in no condition to do this job being directed to continue with this job.”
Carbon monoxide reduces concentration, induces fatigue, and often kills. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Web site suggests that anyone who suspects he might be suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning should get fresh air immediately, go to an emergency room, and inform a doctor of his suspicions.
Dr. Thomas Carracio, who runs the Long Island Regional Poison Control Center, noted that hundreds of people die of carbon monoxide poisoning every year. “What’s troubling is that it sounds like the workers were forced to stay in the area despite the fact they were having symptoms.”
Senator Schumer did not mince words in his letter. He closed with this warning: “It is troubling that the FAA seems grossly unprepared to deal with certain situations within its facilities and, because of this, it would sacrifice the safety of controllers to make up for this lack of planning and foresight. If this is the case, it must be remedied immediately.”