updated 3/17/2009 7:32:34 PM ET 2009-03-17T23:32:34

An ill museum worker alleged in a whistleblower complaint Tuesday that the Smithsonian Institution didn't properly contain asbestos-laden dust from construction at the National Air and Space Museum and penalized him after he complained.

The federal complaint said workers weren't informed of the material's presence or trained in how to handle it until March 2008, even though the Smithsonian acknowledges it knew about the asbestos in the 33-year-old building's outer walls since at least 1992.

The Smithsonian, which denies it retaliated against exhibits specialist Richard Pullman, said it has no current plans to remove the material that can cause cancer and lung disease. It said studies conducted for the museum show the asbestos poses no threat to workers or the public if properly handled or left undisturbed.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited the Smithsonian for violating three federal asbestos regulations in July 2008, months after Pullman first reported problems to federal officials.

Filed complaints with OSHA
Pullman, 53, who suffers from a lung disease called asbestosis, said he begged managers over the last year for better safeguards, including sealing off construction areas to prevent dust from escaping. Pullman filed complaints with OSHA and wrote to members of Congress who oversee the Smithsonian after he said problems persisted. His case was first reported by The Washington Post.

Pullman said he observed unsafe handling of construction dust even after the March 2008 training session at which he and his colleagues were informed of the asbestos risk. According to the complaint, the 27-year employee filed complaints to federal authorities days after the meeting and began e-mailing managers when he spotted safety lapses. He said he was belittled by managers over messages he sent them.

"They dubbed him the 'asbestos police' and wrote him up for 'bothering' his coworkers when he observed asbestos-related work in the galleries," the complaint charges. "They harassed him and taunted him as a whistleblower and they ... downgraded his performance evaluation in order to derail his once-promising career."

Pullman said that after he began complaining, he was reassigned to a lower level manager, denied a promised promotion and raise, and given his first ever formal reprimand for not following procedures in reporting asbestos problems.

"I felt completely betrayed," Pullman said Tuesday. "I felt the Smithsonian organization had considered us disposable commodities."

Reassignment due to reorganization
Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said Pullman maintains the same salary and position and has not been demoted. She said his managers weren't initially aware he'd gone outside Smithsonian with his complaints and that the reassignment was due to a department reorganization.

Smithsonian officials said they weren't aware the building's drywall contained asbestos before a 1992 study. They acknowledge that workers weren't informed for the next 16 years, blaming a communication breakdown caused by staff reorganizations and management changes.

St. Thomas said they're not aware of any other workers with health problems like those afflicting Pullman, whose work sometimes involves sawing and drilling into the museum walls. The museum is offering medical tests for current and former employees.

Experts hired by Pullman, his doctor, and his attorneys said they believe the museum poses a health risk for visitors because they found asbestos-laden dust was not properly contained. Pullman said dust was left exposed at work sites, including along floor boards.

The Smithsonian's safety officers and consultants, however, have deemed the air quality safe. Still, the museum spent $27,000 in February to clean up dust "behind the scenes" and to conduct air monitoring, St. Thomas said. She said levels of asbestos in the air are well below what's deemed dangerous by OSHA.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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