‘I was unable to work in the office without a face mask,’ MSEA-SEIU member testifies on sick buildings

MSEA-SEIU member Deanna Enis tells the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee on Jan. 22 about her experiences working in the Maine DHHS building in Biddeford that the state closed last year due to health and safety problems. She urged them to support LD 1969, An Act to Protect State Workers from Exposure to Carcinogens, sponsored by Representative Thom Harnett.

January 22 — Senator Claxton, Representative Martin, and members of the Committee on State and Local Government, my name is Deanna Enis. I am a member of the Maine Service Employees Association, and I am here on my own time to speak in support of LD 1969, An Act to Protect State Workers from Exposure to Carcinogens.

I have been employed by the State of Maine in various capacities, currently as a child protective services caseworker. I have worked on and off in the Biddeford office of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. I started with the State in October 2013 and worked in the Biddeford building. I started experiencing symptoms such as sneezing, watery itchy eyes, runny nose, numerous colds, an overall feeling of being tired and run down. I and others brought the air quality concerns to the building’s safety committee on several occasions. As a result, air quality tests were completed – but on dry days when mold spores were down. I was told the tests came out negative. At the time, I didn’t know I had the right to request a copy of the report.

In February 2015, I moved to the Sanford office of Maine DHHS and within a few weeks all my symptoms resolved.

In January 2018, I was again in the Biddeford office, in a different area of the office where there was frequent flooding due to poor street drainage and seasonal ice melts. Again, the same symptoms returned and this time, the symptoms worsened. I was getting frequent headaches and nosebleeds. I left the office in July 2018 and again the symptoms resolved within a few weeks to a month.

In January 2019, I again worked in the Biddeford office. The office flooded three times in a little more than two months. Again, I complained of air-quality concerns when my symptoms returned, intensified, and new more serious symptoms emerged such as numbness and tingling in my arms/fingers/and legs, chest pains, tightness in my chest, shortness of breath, wheezing, lack of focus, confusion, and a low grade fever, which just happen to be symptoms of exposure to toxic molds.

I remember coming home from work on a Friday and not being able to cook supper. I felt horrible, run down, lethargic, had a fever and I was unable to do anything all weekend. I was at an all-time low. I wasn’t able to be there for my family and they are my life.

I attributed the symptoms to being sick, having a virus, the cold keeps going around the office, it is the stress of the job, etc. I mean, how else can one feel horrible and have a low-grade fever for weeks/ months? By Sunday night, I was feeling better again only for the symptoms to return after walking into the office on Monday. I can’t get those weeks, months, years of poor health back that impacted my ability to be wholly there with and for my family.

I wasn’t the only one experiencing symptoms. Various personnel were seen in the ER, two individuals who have never smoked in their lives were diagnosed with COPD. The short- and long-term effects from exposure to high levels of numerous types of mold, dead animals in the walls, animal feces, urine, mice and mites significantly impacted the health, safety, and well-being of hard, dedicated, loyal State employees and the public we serve.

I reached out to workplace safety within the State of Maine encouraging them to look further into the air quality report and complete more comprehensive testing. I sent numerous emails to HR about the poor air quality.

I was unable to work in the office without a face mask. A worker’s compensation doctor recommended I work in a different office due to the medication and face mask not relieving the symptoms. I was made to work in the Biddeford office for over a week even after numerous emails to HR. Although I understand there were no specific guidelines for exposure to mold, mice, mites, etc., there should be guidelines in place to prevent this in the future.

The Biddeford office had a building safety committee that met regularly. Air-quality concerns were brought up for many years by numerous individuals to the committee. The committee forwarded the concerns for air quality as outlined in the committee guidelines. No adequate action was taken to further investigate the concerns about poor air quality. Meanwhile, for years employees suffered.

The State needs :1) a system for tracking, monitoring, and transparent information about buildings and potential risk areas; 2) adoption of recommended standards concerning mold, animals, and insects (mold, mites, and mice); and 3) a safety committee, training, transparent communication, procedures, accountability, and clear follow-up guidelines for safety concerns expressed.

Thank you and I would be glad to answer any questions.

Updated: January 22, 2020 — 2:58 PM