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Employees in the EU follow the tradition of many European countries by going on holiday in August. Feeling guilty about taking weeks off due to an injury sustained in a traffic accident, I, along with two supervisors, volunteered as an emergency crew. I made up my mind to accept that I would have to live with constant pain – bad toothache in the spine is an apt way of describing it. The work was steady but lacked the usual hectic work noise.
Two weeks later maintenance workers showed up at the Berlaymont and removed ceiling panels to our offices to access the wiring. My manager walked in and just explained “asbestos”. We were showered with the stuff, blue, the most dangerous. Already in a fragile state, I grabbed my bag and in tears left the building into a corner coffee bar to consider my options, which were either never to return to work or to defend the staff, let alone the workers, who were unprotected. I returned to ask my manager for his opinion on my letter to the maintenance manager who was on vacation. He agreed and approved my polite letter describing how and what “those cowboys” had done, threatening the health of staff and requesting that our offices be professionally cleaned, and copied the letter to my superiors for their return . The cleaning was duly promised by a member of staff in her department for the following weekend but it turned out to be insufficient so we continued our work amid chunks of asbestos.
I awaited everyone’s return in September for their reaction. My colleague punished me for writing the letter, and I was visited by a secretary from the Administration Department who received my letter and made similar accusations against me. There was no indication that her attitude was the opinion of her superiors or anything else her own reaction, so I chose to ignore it. In the absence of a written response, I remained convinced that I had done the right thing. It was left to me to collect the pieces of asbestos from the window sills and flower pots after everyone had seen them. It was obvious that no professional cleaning would take place. Within a few days the notice from the staff union landed on my desk, as well as everyone else in the commission, with the words ‘Asbestos’ written on it. I hadn’t told the union, but it must have seemed so to some. The dilapidated condition and the presence of asbestos in the Berlaymont had long been known. Only my complaint was new and started a new campaign making me uncomfortable.
Among the solutions to the problem, the administrator suggested turning off the air conditioning or leaving the windows open. It would be many more years before the Belgian government, which owned the building, would replace it. Employees have been asked to file all mesothelioma claims, which take decades to produce and are notoriously difficult to prove. Statistics on the number of applications submitted are not publicly known.
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