While critics of the Transportation Security Administration’s use of “backscatter” whole body imagers, which emit ultra-low doses of X-rays, have expressed frequent concerns about passenger safety, they are increasingly also focused on the machines’ operators.
Now a group of lawmakers, the two unions vying to represent TSA airport security workers and outside watchdogs are calling for those workers to wear dosimeters — radiation level detectors that can range from a strip of film to mechanical devices. The agency has argued that there is no need for dosimeter badges, and that the backscatter machines emit so little radiation that such precautions are unnecessary.
John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said TSA’s recent announcement that it ordered new tests for the backscatter scanners due to non-safety-related calculation errors in some reports is reason enough to require monitoring of all employees.
“TSA can no longer rely on the previously reported test data for employee exposure,” he said. “It is imperative that monitoring of employee exposure be undertaken immediately.”
The AFGE has criticized TSA for not acting on a 2008 National Institute for Occupation Safety and Health study’s recommendation for a nationwide, mandatory screening program. The union says it offered to conduct its own study, and provide dosimeters, but TSA declined.
National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen M. Kelley said her organization has long called for TSA workers to have the right to wear dosimeters.
“As I testified to the House Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce last year, addressing concerns over radiation levels in the workplace is a priority issue for NTEU and the TSA workforce,” she said.
Both unions have been competing to grow their membership numbers at TSA for years, operating under its former policy that said security workers were banned from collective bargaining. The agency reversed that policy earlier this year, and the Federal Labor Relations Authority is currently holding an election that will allow workers to choose one of the unions for exclusive representation. The voting period ends April 17.
TSA officials were asked directly about the possibility of dosimeters at a House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee hearing earlier this month.
“There are very, very low levels of radiation used by these machines, and they’re well within public use limits,” said Lee Kair, the agency’s assistant administrator for security operations. “And there are national standards for when you would implement a dosimeter type of program . . . and we are well, well below any of those levels that would cause us to look at putting the radiation badges on the workers.”
Kair said independent tests from Johns Hopkins University and the Army’s Public Health Command used methods including dosimeters, and found no cause for concern.
Still, witnesses and lawmakers at the hearing said they would like to see a dosimeter deployment.
“Of course a film badge for a monitor won’t protect the TSA agent, but it will certainly give an estimate for future use as to whether they’re being exposed,” said David Brenner, director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University, a critic of the backscatter devices. “And it makes no sense to me at all that they’re not wearing film badges. I mean, in any academic setting and any medical setting, anybody who has any association with ionizing radiation wears a film badge.”
Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, questioned Kair on the dosimeter issue, and Stephen F. Lynch, D-Mass., called allowing TSA workers wear the badges “a reasonable approach.”
Rob Margetta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org