The King County ombudsman’s office has started a preliminary investigation into Metro Transit’s bus cleaning procedures after receiving three complaints from Metro employees since November.
The complaints allege that workers were exposed to unsanitary conditions, even before the novel coronavirus outbreak, and had not been given proper protective equipment as of late February, when the virus was becoming an increasing threat.
Workers said seats for drivers and riders are not cleaned properly and that spills and biohazards have remained on vehicles for hours before they get sanitized.
Brian Camozzi, transit deputy ombudsman, said his office received the complaints Nov. 26, Feb. 25, and March 13. He has interviewed some workers and visited Metro’s Atlantic maintenance base in Sodo on March 9, he said.
However, Camozzi said he has not yet formally notified Metro of the investigation through a letter to Metro General Manager Rob Gannon. Camozzi said he is still conducting preliminary research and has reached no conclusions about the complaints.
“Safety is Metro’s No. 1 priority and we stand ready to respond to any questions the ombuds office might have,” Metro spokesperson Jeff Switzer said in an email.
In response to the coronavirus outbreak, Metro says its crews spray all bus handrails, seats, windows and other high-touch areas each night with a sanitizing solution that kills viruses. The spraying replaced bleach-soaked cloths that Metro had been using.
The nightly disinfecting is in addition to Metro’s longstanding policy of deep cleaning interior bus surfaces every 30 days. When an unsanitary condition arises, Switzer said, vehicles are pulled from service for more sanitizing and deep-cleaning.
The transit agency also is installing dividers on buses to encourage more space between the drivers and riders, he said.
Camozzi said his investigation will examine Metro Transit “from a systemic perspective,” looking at the agency’s protocols and at whether buses are cleaned regularly and thoroughly.
“For example, are crews spraying things on rather than cleaning off surfaces? They may be spraying sanitizer, but not scrubbing down dirt,” he said.
Switzer said in the email that “the results of sanitizing on buses or vehicles, or at bases, are often not visible after the cleaning agent dries … We have a task force in place dedicated to cleaning and we’re committed to continuous improvement across our agency.”
According to the complaint from March, a worker said, “Metro only recently started cleaning buses.” Previously, the complainant said, crews “were only doing a quick sweep, no disinfecting.”
In the February complaint, an employee said “Metro used to provide hand sanitizer and other materials but stopped providing them until the COVID outbreak.”
Camozzi said he doesn’t anticipate releasing recommendations or conclusions amid the coronavirus crisis, “but I will focus on how can we improve the system going forward and be ready for the next one.”
He said he expects to complete the investigation by the end of the year, but the timeline could slip into early next year.