Federal agencies and the media have begun to pay attention to the safety and health of workers involved in the Hurricane Katrina rescue, response and cleanup. The main reason is clearly the toxic soup that has consumed the New Orleans area, but hovering in the background are the lessons learned from the cleanup operation following the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, which left thousands of workers with serious long-term health problems.
The potential hazards in New Orleans, and to a lesser extent throughout the Gulf Coast, range from the more common hurricane-related hazards – such as electrical hazards, falling tree limbs, and dust containing lead, silica and asbestos – to the unique hazards caused by the New Orleans flood: raw sewage, rotting human and animal bodies, medical waste, and chemicals such as gasoline, oil, corrosives, lead and other heavy metals. Many of these materials will persist in the soil for years to come as the city is rebuilt.
All of this brings back bad memories from the aftermath of 9/11 when police, fire, rescue, construction, utility and volunteer workers in New York were exposed to a similar array of hazards. Asbestos, glass, concrete and hazardous chemicals were pulverized when the buildings fell and then cooked for weeks while the fires sent out plumes of toxic smoke.
Dr. Stephen Levin of the Selikoff Center for Occupational & Environmental Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York estimates that of the 12,000 workers and volunteers screened by the hospital, half have persistent respiratory problems, such as asthma, inflammation and sinusitis. One emergency medical technician died recently of respiratory illness related to his exposure. Many others are so severely ill they can’t work. About 300 firefighters have retired with disabilities from injuries and illnesses they believe are related to World Trade Center work.
Clear evidence has emerged that the federal government failed to take obvious precautionary measures. The Environmental Protection Agency, acting on orders from the White House, publicly downplayed the hazards of the dust, according to a report from the agency’s inspector general. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration did not require the wearing of respirators by recovery workers. And the Department of Health and Human Services failed to effectively monitor the health of federal 9/11 responders, who as a result did not get needed treatment, according to testimony just provided by the Government Accountability Office (the research arm of Congress).
Unfortunately, there are troubling signs that the Katrina aftermath could turn into déjà vu all over again. Federal agencies (including OSHA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and the EPA) have published helpful material on their web sites describing hazards in the area, as well as measures that can be taken to prevent injury and illness. Yet, with the exception of an NIEHS slide show, not one of these web sites – including OSHA’s – provides rescue and relief workers with easily accessible information on their rights or what to do if their employer does not supply the necessary protective equipment or other safety measures. OSHA’s public service announcements do little more than urge people to work safely.
Meanwhile, reports from EPA whistleblowers are already surfacing, casting doubt on the agency’s competence. Veteran EPA employee and whistleblower Hugh Kaufman told Britain’s The Independent on Sunday that the pollution being pumped out of New Orleans is far worse than admitted, as EPA has failed to take enough samples and refused to make public the results of those it has analyzed. He fears that “inept political hacks” will imperil the health of low-income migrant workers carrying out the cleanup.
To make matters worse, none of the affected states (Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana or Florida) provide OSHA coverage for public employees who will be involved in much of the hurricane-related work. (Only those 24 states that run their own OSHA programs or have federally approved “public employee-only” OSHA plans provide public employees with the right to a safe workplace.) Public employees in the hurricane-affected states will be forced to rely on the goodwill of their employers, as opposed to OSHA enforcement, to protect their health and safety.
Finally, the Bush administration seems to have found a silver lining in this disaster: the opportunity to roll back worker protections. Last week, the Department of Transportation temporarily relaxed rules controlling how many hours truckers can drive when transporting fuel, and President Bush signed an order suspending the Davis-Bacon Act, the law requiring that employers pay construction workers prevailing wages for public construction contracts. Not only does this guarantee lower wages for an already impoverished part of the country, but it also guarantees lower quality work.
The federal government and public health community would do well to heed the lessons of the World Trade Center cleanup. First, everything possible should be done to train workers about the hazards they face, equip them with needed equipment and educate them about their rights. From there, we need a coordinated approach for assessing and monitoring worker health and a plan to refer workers for treatment when screening examinations identify health problems.
No one can claim that we haven’t been warned.
Jordan Barab is a former OSHA and labor union official who currently authors the blog Confined Space: News and Commentary on Workplace Health & Safety, Labor and Politics.