By Trevor Aaronson
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency charged with monitoring worker safety, is investigating the illness of a U.S. Postal Service employee who handled a leaking package from Yemen at an Orlando mail-sorting facility.
The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting first reported that Jeffrey A. Lill experienced health problems after handling the parcel, which was leaking a brown viscous substance. Lill, 44, suffers from extreme fatigue, tremors, and liver and neurological problems consistent with toxic exposure.
But USPS has refused to investigate what happened to Lill, stating through lawyers that the incident never occurred. But FCIR, in partnership with the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California-Berkeley, uncovered related documents and interviewed two whistleblowers who confirmed what happened.
Following FCIR’s report — which was published May 13 in the Miami Herald, The Ledger of Lakeland, and the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, as well as in more than 250 newspapers worldwide through Associated Press distribution — Michael D’Aquino, a spokesman for OSHA’s southeast regional office, confirmed the agency is looking into what made Lill sick.
D’Aquino said OSHA began its investigation in April, when he said investigators first received a complaint. But records show Lill’s mother, Janet Vieau, filed a complaint in February. Either way, OSHA’s investigation will likely be toothless, since federal law prohibits the agency from issuing citations for incidents that are more than six months old. Lill and two witnesses said the package came through Orlando on Feb. 4, 2011.
Vieau, 64, a real estate agent in Rochester, N.Y., said she has been calling OSHA for months to encourage them to investigate her son’s illness.
“I’ve spoken to OSHA a number of times, and each time, they just flipped me off,” Vieau said. An OSHA representative had told Vieau that the agency would not investigate because the incident had occurred more than six months ago.
This is the first time Vieau has heard of an active OSHA investigation, which she attributes to the media attention her son’s case has received.
“I’m beginning to think that as a result of what you’ve done, there will be an exception to the rule,” she said. “Before now, OSHA told me quite frankly that six months was up and sorry.”