WASHINGTON -- Now committed to following the laws it imposes on the rest of America, Congress is finding its own workplace so fraught with danger and carelessness that inspectors have worried about a "potential catastrophe," records show.

Digging into the bowels of the Capitol and other congressional buildings, new inspectors named by lawmakers to protect employees' safety discovered Congress' maintenance workers had the highest accident rate in the entire government.A year's worth of inspections of the Capitol grounds found plenty of hazards. Inspectors reported how:

-- Congressional workers risked blood-transmitted diseases by digging through contaminated trash without protective clothing.

-- One building contained high concentrations of the bacteria that cause Legionnaires' disease.

-- Recalcitrant officials had to be issued federal citations before they moved flammable liquids stored near exposed electrical wires and in other dangerous places.

The Office of Compliance inspectors issued a scathing report last November on the work of the 2,000-employee Capitol Architect's Office, responsible for upkeep of the Capitol, eight congressional office buildings, the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court and the power plant that supplies cooling and heating to congressional buildings.

"Overall . . . protections for employee health and safety fall far below those that prevail in private companies and government agencies that have good safety programs," that report concluded.

The Architect's Office says it is just beginning to change a culture of neglect on Capitol Hill.

"We were behind" in bringing Congress into compliance, said Lynne Theiss, the Architect's executive officer. "We are making great strides to get ahead of the curve. We had a general change in our approach to business."

Just last week, however, inspectors found 14 new health and safety violations at the power plant. They included excessive exposure to coal dust, lack of a comprehensive respiratory program, failure to clean and disinfect respirators and a lack of working fire extinguishers.

Patricia Dollar, the Architect's former recycling coordinator, had a firsthand look at the hazards inside a closet in one House office building.

"Six drums were in there," she said. "One of the drums was very rusty and had popped and expanded. We unscrewed a little cock. We looked down and it was bubbling. It was a combination of leftover chemicals from the furniture repair shop. And it was extremely flammable."

Fire also is a serious fear for workers. Hazel Dews, a nighttime custodian in the Senate office buildings, complained, "We are in three buildings with one exit from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m."

The House inspector general reported in December that the Capitol and five other congressional properties were firetraps that left visitors, lawmakers and employees with an "undue risk of loss of life and property."

Fresh worries keep emerging.

In January, Architect's employees removed asbestos from a Capitol Police locker room -- but never told the officers what they were doing. Asbestos can cause cancer if its dust is breathed.

Theiss acknowledged the officers should have been notified, calling it "a failure to communicate."

Congress historically has exempted itself from the federal safety and labor laws it imposes and which are enforced on corporate America by agencies such as the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. But when Republicans took over the House in 1995, they engineered passage of legislation that committed Congress to follow those statutes and created the Office of Compliance to enforce them.