The staff in the EU follow the tradition of many European countries in departing on holiday during August. As I felt guilty for taking weeks of leave due to injury in a road traffic accident, I volunteered as skeleton staff along with two superiors. I had resolved to accept that I would have to live constantly in pain – bad toothache in the spine is a fair way to describe it. The work was steady but lacking the normal frenetic working buzz.
Two weeks in, workmen appeared as part of maintenance in the Berlaymont, removing ceiling panels in our offices to access the wiring. My superior entered declaring only “asbestos”. We were being showered with the stuff, blue, the most dangerous. Already in a fragile state I grabbed my bag and left the building in tears for a corner coffee bar to ponder my options which were either never to return to work, or to act in defence of staff, not to mention the workmen who were unprotected. I returned to ask my superior his opinion on my writing to the head of department responsible for the maintenance who was currently on holiday. He agreed and approved my polite letter describing how and what “these cowboys” had done, the threat to the health of staff and requesting a professional clean up of our offices, copying the letter to my superiors for their return. The cleaning was duly promised by a member of their department for the following weekend but it turned out to be inadequate so we continued to work surrounded with chunks of asbestos.
I anticipated the return of everyone in September for their reaction. My colleague chastised me for writing the letter and I had a visit from a secretary of the Admin Department which received my letter, similarly reproaching me. There was no suggestion that their attitude was their superiors’ opinion or anything other their own reaction so I chose to ignore it. I received no written reply so I remained convinced that I had taken the right action. It remained for me to collect the pieces of asbestos from the window sills and plant pots once everyone had seen it. It was obvious that no professional cleaning was going to happen. Within days the staff union notice landed on my desk, as well as everyone else’s in the Commission, emblazoned ‘Asbestos’. I had not told the union but to some it must have appeared that I had. It had long been known about the state of disrepair and the presence of asbestos in the Berlaymont. Only my complaint was new, starting a new campaign, so I started to feel uncomfortable.
Among the solutions to the problem was for Admin to suggest stopping the air conditioning or to leave the windows open. It would take many more years for the Belgian Government, which owned the building, to replace it. Staff were invited to submit any claims for mesothelioma which takes decades to present and is notoriously difficult to prove. Statistics on the number of claims which were made are not public knowledge.