Following are sections of an IG report on major management challenges facing the GSA focusing on concerns about building safety and security and air and water quality in federal buildings.
GSA’s Management of Building Safety
GSA’s management of building safety measures is critical because problems could pose fire, safety, and health risks to GSA building occupants, contractors, personnel, the public, and federal property. However, recent audit reports have demonstrated that GSA faces challenges in this area.
For example, in February 2022, we reported that PBS failed to comply with federal regulations and its own policy for asbestos management at the Chet Holifield Federal Building (CHFB).30 As a result, CHFB tenants, visitors, contractors, and PBS staff were at increased risk of exposure to asbestos-containing materials. We found that PBS:
• Does not maintain a reliable asbestos-containing materials inventory for the CHFB or update the CHFB asbestos management plan;
• Failed to notify building occupants of the presence and location of asbestos-containing materials in accordance with federal and state regulations and PBS policy; and
• Is providing inadequate oversight of the CHFB O&M service contractor.
We also found that PBS’s Asbestos Policy contains ambiguous and conflicting information, which can result in inconsistent application of the policy by PBS staff and failure to comply with applicable laws and regulations.
In March 2022, we reported that PBS has not identified all high-risk uses of space under GSA control because it is not effectively managing its fire, safety, and health program.31 As a result, PBS has not taken measures to eliminate or mitigate potential fire, safety, and health hazards arising from high-risk uses of space, or identified and addressed all incompatible occupant activities.
Security Deficiencies in GSA Facilities
Our reports also demonstrate significant challenges facing the security of GSA facilities. For example, in June 2022 we reported on deficiencies in security camera and alarm systems in GSA-owned buildings.32 The specific findings of our report are restricted from public release; however, we found that although GSA and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Protective Service have an agreement in place to coordinate on the long-standing issues identified in our report, little action is being taken to address the situation.
The deficiencies identified in our report on security camera and alarm systems, coupled with our previous reports on security at GSA facilities, demonstrate that physical security remains a challenge for GSA. In January 2020, we reported on significant security vulnerabilities at child care centers in GSA-controlled facilities.33 In September 2021, we reported on pervasive deficiencies in site security and security operations and administration at a high-risk GSA building.34
GSA is taking corrective action to address these deficiencies. For example, GSA received $15 million through the Consolidated Appropriation Act, 2022 to address the security deficiencies in its child care centers identified through our January 2020 report.35 GSA officials told us that they are actively planning projects using this funding to improve security at these facilities. Notwithstanding these efforts, our continued findings in this area demonstrate an ongoing need for GSA management’s attention.
Ventilation and Air Filtration
The CDC Guidance for Business and Employers Responding to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID- 19) recommends improving building ventilation to reduce the concentration of virus particles in the air to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. CDC’s recommendations include increasing the introduction of outdoor air and improving central air filtration. During FY 2022, we issued two reports identifying deficiencies in ventilation and air filtration at GSA-owned facilities.
• In a March 2022 management alert, we reported that the ventilation in the child care center at the GSA Headquarters Building was inadequate.37 Although GSA took mitigating actions to address the inadequate ventilation in the child care center, these efforts were not effective. For example, PBS relies on the use of window air conditioners to supply fresh air to the center. However, the air conditioners were not in constant operation and only provide a negligible amount of fresh air. Additionally, we found that the levers to open and close the fresh air vents for three of the five air conditioners were broken.
• In September 2022, we reported that PBS faces challenges in its efforts to improve air filtration in GSA-controlled facilities to help prevent workplace exposures to COVID-19.38 We found that PBS cannot install the recommended air filters in some GSA-owned facilities because the aging HVAC systems cannot handle MERV 13 air filters. In addition, PBS is not consistently verifying that O&M contractors change air filters or meet preventive maintenance requirements for air handling units in GSA-owned facilities. We also found that PBS is not consistently inspecting GSA-leased space to ensure that air filters meet lease requirements. In some cases, lessors used noncompliant air filters or did not change them regularly. As a result, PBS is using air filters in some GSA-controlled facilities that are less efficient at capturing airborne viruses, including the virus that causes COVID-19.
The reduced occupancy levels during the COVID-19 pandemic allowed for water stagnation in federal facilities. On July 22, 2021, the CDC issued guidance, Reopening Buildings After Prolonged Shutdown or Reduced Operation. The guidance states that “a temporary shutdown or reduced operation of a building (for example, a school or a childcare facility) and reductions in normal water use can create hazards for returning occupants.” It further states to check for hazards before reopening after a prolonged period of building inactivity. The CDC explains that a “prolonged period” for lead and copper contamination may range from hours or days, to weeks or months, depending on plumbing and water-specific factors. The CDC further explains that a period of weeks or months of minimal water flow, among other factors, can also facilitate Legionella bacteria growth.
In September 2022, we issued an alert memorandum notifying GSA that PBS did not effectively test for water contamination prior to reopening GSA child care centers that were closed during the pandemic.39 We found that PBS did not conduct water testing before reopening almost all of the child care centers closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. While PBS has since tested the water in some child care centers, this testing was not comprehensive. As a result, PBS does not have assurance that children and staff at the child care centers have access to safe drinking water.
As described above, challenges remain as GSA and tenant agencies return to facilities in greater numbers. Accordingly, GSA must continue to monitor and implement evolving federal, state, and local health department guidance. GSA must also ensure adequate ventilation and air filtration in GSA facilities and address the potential risk for contaminated water in facilities where decreased occupancy has caused water to stagnate.