FOX 29 Investigates: Food Inspectors Flunk Own Office

Philadelphia is home to many of the region's best-known and busiest restaurants.

It's the city's health inspectors, known as sanitarians, who have the important task of keeping kitchens clean and food healthy.

There's no room for pests.

"The health department's policy is a zero tolerance for the presence of insects and rodents in any place that serves food," said a man who knows. He's an inspector.

We are hiding his face and altering his voice because he has come to blow the whistle - not on some roach-infested restaurant, but on his employer, the city of Philadelphia.

"How about places where the inspectors actually work, does it have zero tolerance there?" asked FOX 29 Investigative Reporter Jeff Cole.

"Well, we would like it to be zero tolerance," the inspector said.

But it sure isn't. There are cockroaches in bug traps on the floor. Fly strips hang from the lights. Oh, and there's something called an "odor log" being kept.

"They call it a poop log," the inspector told us.

Where is this place? It's at 500 South Broad Street.

"The place is a dump," said Bob Coyle, a union representative for the inspectors.

"The sanitarians for the City of Philadelphia work in a dump, you're saying?" Cole asked.

"If the sanitarians inspected the office in which they are assigned - if that were a business on the outside - they would have it closed," Coyle said.

Six food inspectors and their supervisor, covering Center City and South Philly, work in basement offices in the city building at 500 South Broad.

Those offices have problems so nasty that FOX 29 Investigates was urged to capture them on video.

How about leaking pipes directly over the heads of workers?

"So, you think you have some wastewater dripping on you as you work?" Cole asked.

"I think I did a couple of times, yes?" the inspector replied.

"When you say wastewater, what do you mean by wastewater?" Cole inquired.

"From a toilet or hand-wash sink, or whatever," the city worker said.

He says there are bugs that fly in your face while your work, mosquitoes appeared after a water leak, and those ugly cockroaches.

"Once in a while you'll hear not a scream but an outburst from one of the other employees because a large, brown cockroach is in the area," he said.

Union leader Coyle says Health Department managers know all about the problems.

"I've reached out to managers in the Health Department on multiple occasions to address this," Coyle said. "And they've been slow. The response has been very slow."

Dr. Palak Raval-Nelson is the director of Environmental Health Services for the city.

"Dr. Nelson, how are you?" Cole asked her.

"I'm good, I'm good," she said.

When Cole introduced himself, she said, "I remember you - not a good time."

"I've got to talk to you real quickly, just before you leave," Cole said.

The inspectors work for Raval-Nelson. Coyle claims he spoke directly to her about the problems.

"How did the conditions there get so bad?" Cole asked.

"I think you should reach out to (spokesman) Jeff Moran," Raval-Nelson said.

"How did it get to be that there were rodents and bugs…" Cole began.

"There are no rodents," Raval-Nelson said.

"And there was a urinal that broke into those offices?" Cole asked. "They said that they asked you many times, doctor, to…"

"They didn't," Raval-Nelson said.

"They didn't? They never asked you? They said they spoke to you," Cole said, as the car door shut.

The inspector told us during our interview, "A couple of months ago, I'm talking to one of my coworkers and a mouse ran by."

In fact, conditions became so bad this summer after a urinal overflowed on the first floor, that FOX 29

Investigates has learned the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was sent these pictures and a letter of complaint.

OSHA tells Fox 29 it has no authority over city offices, and the letter-writer was told to alert the city's Risk Management Office.

FOX 29 has learned the writer didn't do it, thinking "nothing would be done."

And then there's the issue of sewer gases.

"So, you guys keep an odor log, right?" Cole asked.

"Yes, they call it a poop log," the worker told us.

We were shown the odor log, complete with dates when the smell was strong.

The inspector remembers an office stampede.

"I said, 'What the hell, did they see a rat or something?' But they were running because there was a strong odor of sewage coming from that corner of the office," the inspector said.

Coyle told us, "I assure you none of these bosses, they wouldn't work in such conditions. They wouldn't tolerate it."

Raval-Nelson refused comment.

"Would have you worked in those offices?" Cole asked.

"Jeff, you know the procedure," the doctor replied, after rolling down the window.

"Oh come one, you can answer this question," Cole said.

"Jeff, watch your feet," Raval-Nelson said, as she backed her vehicle out of the parking space.

"Why did it remain like that?" Cole pressed. "Why wasn't that changed or they moved out?"

Moran, the Health Department's spokesman, said the urinal flooded over a weekend in late August, and by Monday staff was moved back upstairs and told to stay out of the basement, he says, due to the potential of electrical hazards. He wrote they remained there until new office space was ready.

The union rep, Coyle, and a worker dispute that. They say the group worked in the basement for weeks after the flood. The moved into new offices just a few weeks ago.

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