Aug. 29, 2012 09:40

IG: VA files exposed to fire and water damage

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IG: VA files exposed to fire and water damage

BY JORDAN GREEN
jordan@yesweekly.com

The Winston-Salem Veterans Administration regional office is looking for warehouse space to store tens of thousands of benefit claims files on the heels of a visit by the office of inspector general in May in which the oversight agency raised concerns about improper file storage.

The Veterans Administration takes up four floors of the Hiram H. Ward Federal Building in downtown Winston-Salem, which also houses a federal court.

A scathing inspector general report released in early August raised concerns that the volume of files and manner of storage created a risk of loss and exposure to water and fire damage, slowed productivity, put workers’ safety at risk and potentially compromised the structural integrity of the building.

“The volume of folders and inadequate storage seems to indicate the VA has exceeded the capacity to store files,” Linda A. Halliday, assistant inspector general for audits and evaluations, wrote. “This overstorage creates an unsafe environment for the employees, overexposes many claims folders to risk of fire/water damage, inadvertent loss and possible misplacement, as well as impedes VARO productivity by reducing access to many folders in a timely manner. We observed files stored approximately two feet high and two rows deep on top of file cabinets. File cabinets were placed so closely together that file drawers could not be opened completely. We estimated 37,000 claims folders were stored on top of file cabinets.”

The Winston-Salem Regional Office indicated in a written response that the majority of the files are inactive, although some are active, meaning that they have a pending claim. The agency said if a veteran files a supplemental claim staff would be able to retrieve the file within 48 hours and there would be no impact on timeliness of claims processing.

The IG report also raised questions about whether the overflow of files is putting the structural integrity of the federal building at risk.

“The excess weight of the stored files has the potential to compromise the structural integrity of the sixth floor of the facility,” the inspector general found. “We noticed floors bowing under the excess weight to the extent that the tops of the file cabinets were noticeably un-level throughout the storage area.”

Halliday wrote that General Services Administration provided her team with a fire inspection report that expressed concerns about “floor stack loading” on the 6th floor of the building, characterizing it as “an extreme fire load and possible structural overloading concern.”

General Services Administration followed up by performing a so-called “load-bearing study” on the 6th floor,” according to a letter from Rawls to the inspector general on June 29. Rawls said the study found that load was measured at 164 pounds per square foot, in excess of the 125-pound limit for the floor. The regional office removed all folders from the tops of the file cabinets on the 6th floor and relocated them to the 5th , 7th and 8th floors in response.

But Rawls said that the engineer in General Services Administration who conducted the load-bearing analysis estimated the weight of the filing cabinets. When her office provided the actual weights, the pound per square foot dropped to 120, within the acceptable threshold.

“Additionally,” she wrote, “the engineer stated that there was never any danger of the floor collapsing.”

The building in Winston-Salem does not currently have a building manager. Mike Caldwell, the area property manager with responsibility for the building, declined to comment, referring all questions to General Services Administration public affairs in Atlanta.

Saudia Muwwakkil, a spokeswoman for General Services Administration, said in a written statement that the agency issued a revised report "once data was verified and made available to us." The statement went on to say, "GSA does not currently consider the 6th floor to be in danger of collapsing and has made recommendations to help ensure continued structural safety at the facility."

Halliday said excessive file storage also posed unnecessary risks to the safety of the Veterans Administration employees working in the building. Various official reports “all disclosed concerns with boxes of files blocking exits, files stacked too close to overhead sprinklers and files falling from the tops of file cabinets onto employees,” she wrote. “In 2011, one employee experienced a minor shoulder injury when claims folders fell on him from the top of a filing cabinet. Narrow aisles due to file cabinet placement may also impede employees from exiting file storage areas in case of emergency or crisis situations. Egress may be especially hampered when staff use ladders or file carts to store claims folders in the crowded space.”

Rawls said that in mid-June employees were directed to stop putting folders on top of filing cabinets on the 6th floor. Over the next couple days staff removed furniture and work stations on the B1 basement sublevel to make room for some of the excess files. Rawls wrote that 7,707 XC folders, a designation for files made by deceased veterans, could be retired. An additional 11,339 c-folders — claims by living veterans — could be relocated to a records management center.

The Winston-Salem regional office currently has 33,553 claims pending, with 21,785 being more than 125 days old and considered part of the backlog. The office said that the agency has committed that no claim will be pending longer than 125 days by 2015.

Editorial note: This story has been updated to reflect a statement by General Services Administration after the print version was published on Aug. 29, 2012.

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