By Sam Pearson
They make a product everyone wants.
But workers at one of two federal facilities that print paper money face higher risk of injury because of the plant’s ancient design. Fixing the problem could cost the government hundreds of millions of dollars.
The Bureau of Engraving and Printing, a branch of the Treasury Department, operates two sites that make paper U.S. currency. One is a facility near the Jefferson Memorial in Washington that’s more than 100 years old, while the other, opened in 1990, operates in Fort Worth, Texas.
The D.C. plant churns out $233 billion in paper currency annually and attracts visitors to its popular guided tour.
Workers at the D.C. plant are more likely to hurt themselves than those at the newer printing plant in Fort Worth, the Government Accountability Office found earlier this year, citing workers compensation data. In all, more than two-thirds of the bureau’s workers’ compensation claims came from the Washington plant, where employees are vulnerable to hand, back, and repetitive motion injuries related to handling heavy pallets of paper currency.
Walking through one of the D.C. building’s four narrow wings just off the National Mall, David Hatch, the bureau’s deputy associate director of manufacturing, told Bloomberg Environment that its antiquated design comes at a cost to workers and productivity.
On the production floors, workers run machines sandwiched between support columns that tower close to the ceiling. These machines print currency design and apply color to the notes. Workers load pallets of paper money that can weigh as much as 1,700 pounds onto wheeled carts and push them to holding rooms, sometimes on different floors, where the bills dry for 72 hours. Overall, they move the bills more than twice as far in the D.C. facility than at the newer factory in Texas.
“If an employee’s not attentive, that cart can get away from him,” Hatch said.
Fixing the D.C. plant’s design would be complicated. An estimated $196 million in nonessential maintenance has already been put off amid the long-term uncertainty over the building’s future.
Renovating the building is one option—an expensive one. The Government Accountability Office has found that it will cost about $600 million more to renovate the D.C. facility than to start from scratch somewhere else.
But starting over requires congressional approval. The bureau would have to complete a lengthy acquisition process to identify and acquire suitable property, design a facility, and build it. In all, it could take a decade or more.
Under one scenario, the current structure would become office space for other Treasury Department units that lease commercial real estate elsewhere.
“The premise sure makes sense to me,” Michael Toole, dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Toledo, who has studied the role of building design in worker safety and health, told Bloomberg Environment. “There’s just things that we did not pay as much attention to back then.”
Counterfeiting is another concern. The bureau must stay ahead of forgers by adding security features to paper currency, based on directives from the Treasury Department and the U.S. Secret Service, the lead investigative agency for counterfeiting crimes.
The machinery that prints the hard-to-replicate bills keeps getting larger. It has to be brought in through narrow windows by cranes, sometimes warranting the closure of busy adjacent roads. It’s expected that the next generation of printers won’t fit or will be too heavy for the 100-year-old concrete floors.
The site also lacks the kind of perimeter security expected at a federal building of its nature. Instead, its walls abut sidewalks and streets.
About 30 printing employees rely on materials from delivery trucks small enough to fit in the bureau’s loading dock. They run the presses in three shifts a day, five days a week.
Having manufacturing spread over four five-story wings creates inefficiencies, Hatch said. Between 2013 and 2016, the bureau told government auditors that overhead costs were 23 percent higher to make $1 notes in D.C. than to print them in Fort Worth, and 7 percent higher for $20 notes. The Washington building also has more employees, even though it makes less currency.
The Fort Worth facility was built to provide a secondary source of currency in case of a disruption in Washington. As the need for currency increased, the plant helped meet the demand, producing 60 percent of the nation’s supply. Production is simplified at the site because it’s essentially a single, large warehouse with ample room for machines and employee movement on one level, Hatch said.
Many employees have worked at the plant for decades. In time, officials expect automation to reduce the demand for labor. Changes being piloted in Fort Worth include laser guided vehicles that move items on limited routes using wireless signals and sensor technology.
Employees who have worked at both the Washington and Fort Worth printing plants find the differences stark, Rick Compher, directing business representative for the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers, District 4, told Bloomberg Environment. The union represents some of the workers at the bureau.
“We’re under the gun, working a tremendous amount of hours on a continuous basis,” Compher said. “Sometimes your body is breaking down a little bit towards the end of that day or end of that week.”
It’s unclear if Congress will sign off on the bureau’s project. Marty Greiner, the bureau’s deputy director, told Bloomberg Environment lawmakers are on notice they will start renovations in January if the approval doesn’t come.
So far, Senate appropriators have included the approval for fiscal 2019, but House appropriators have not. A spokesman for Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) referred Bloomberg Environment to committee language echoing the bureau’s justification for the project. A spokeswoman for House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) didn’t respond to Bloomberg Environment’s request for comment.
Waiting any longer isn’t acceptable to the bureau, according to Grenier.
“Having the world validate the security of our currency is very important,” he said. “It’s really the trust and security of the United States.”
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