Guess the VA Does Have a Paperwork Problem…

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Files stacked atop filing cabinets at the VA's Winston-Salem office.

Veterans routinely complain about how much paperwork they have to generate to apply for VA benefits. They may have a point: the Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general reported Thursday that paper had piled so high at the VA’s regional office in Winston-Salem, N.C., that it “appeared to have the potential to compromise the integrity of the building.”

Noted the IG:

The volume of folders and inadequate storage seems to indicate the VARO [VA Regional Office] has exceeded the capacity to store files. This over-storage 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 that approximately 37,000 claims folders were stored on top of file cabinets. We also observed files stored on the floor and stacked, as space permitted, in boxes along walls. The attached photos provide illustrations of the excessive and unsafe file storage at this VARO.

The excess weight of the stored files has the potential to compromise the structural integrity of the sixth floor of the facility. We noticed floors bowing under the excess weight to the extent that the tops of file cabinets were noticeably unlevel throughout the storage area. We asked the responsible Property Manager within the General Services Administration (GSA) for a copy of the most recent inspection report and load bearing study of the building. The Property Manager could not locate any evidence of a load bearing study, but thought that such a study was conducted approximately 10 years ago. He said that he would coordinate with GSA’s Civil Engineering office to determine whether a new study might be conducted. Additionally, the Property Manager provided us with a copy of a GSA fire inspection report, dated May 8, 2012. In the report, the Regional Fire Protection Engineer expressed concerns about “floor stack loading” on the sixth floor of the building, stating that it constituted “an extreme fire load and a possible structural overloading concern.”

The excessive file storage and building integrity issues observed pose unnecessary risks to the safety of VA employees working in the building. VARO safety meetings, quarterly VARO safety inspections, and an annual workplace evaluation conducted by the VISN 6 Safety Manager 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. 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…

GSA conducted a load bearing study of the 6th floor. On Wednesday June 13, 2012, the Regional Office was notified that the estimated load on the 6th floor was 164 psf, which exceeded the capacity of 125 psf for the floor.

The IG alerted VA headquarters to the problem, which has led to the relocation of much of the paperwork, and plans for better and safer long-term storage.

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