After the Hurricanes: What's the Right Way to Protect Workers?

Despite strong criticism, OSHA officials say technical assistance, not enforcement, is the first line of defense in an emergency.

Jennifer Lim of Comprehensive Health Services won't likely forget the drive she made with a medical team from Bayou Gauche to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina." We spent over 2 1/2 hours on that road. Every single tree was turned over and destroyed," she recalled, likening the surreal scene of mile after mile of uprooted magnolia trees, turned brown as if they were rusted, to "something in an animation movie."

When Dr. Charles Allgood, technical support leader, Clean and Disinfect - Human Health for DuPont Safety and Protection, arrived at a DuPont facility near Lake Pontchartrain, he saw washed up on the site much of the community that had once existed across the water - boats, refrigerators, stoves, front doors and propane cylinders for backyard grills. As families had moved onto the site after the storm, Allgood was asked to disinfect a "huge container of toys" for a playground being set up at the plant.

Scenes of destruction and desperation abounded along the Gulf Coast, prompting a huge effort to rescue residents and then begin the long process of cleanup and rebuilding. Under the federal National Response Plan, there is a document called the Worker Safety and Health Support Annex that provides guidelines for the protection of federal employees and employees of federal contractors. OSHA coordinates that effort.

"The hurricane [Katrina] hit on Monday morning and we had people in there on Tuesday evening," said John Miles, OSHA's Region 6 administrator and the incident commander for OSHA's response. Three OSHA teams are working in the affected areas from offices in Houston, New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The New Orleans operation began with recreational vehicles set up at a Voluntary Protection Program site - Valero Energy's refinery about 5 miles west of the airport. Using the RVs and MSHA command vehicles used in rescue operations, OSHA set up a mobile command post. Other RVs were sent to the Syngenta site near Baton Rouge. Soon after, a joint field operations (JFO) center for all the federal agencies was set up in an abandoned shopping mall in Baton Rouge.

OSHA on the Ground

On Oct. 5, OSHA issued a statement that it had intervened in nearly 5,000 situations where some 10,500 workers could have been seriously injured. Acting OSHA Administrator Jonathan Snare noted that more than 100 OSHA workers were "fanned out across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas to help protect workers involved in cleanup and recovery operations."

OSHA efforts are coordinated at the JFO, where six staffers keep tabs on what cleanup projects are underway and direct OSHA personnel to sites where they are needed. Safety considerations are guided by a safety and health plan which lays out likely hazards workers will encounter, suggestions for dealing with them, guidelines for proper personal protective equipment and training recommendations. Rich Tapio, who is directing field operations from the New Orleans office, described the work: "It is not all that dissimilar from what we normally do in the field - make contact with employers and employees. We are doing risk management-style assessments of projects led by the Army Corps of Engineers, EPA and other agencies."

OSHA is spending a lot of time at huge debris piles - it is estimated there will be 37 million cubic yards of debris that will be removed from the incident area - that are the size of two or three football fields. The primary concern at these sites is traffic safety. "Trucks are pulling up to dump their loads but they haven't pulled off the road enough," said Greg Honaker, OSHA's Baton Rouge area director and the operations chief for the hurricane response. Related problems include failing to set out traffic cones, employees not wearing hi-visibility vests and failure to wear dust masks or safety glasses. He also noted that there are 66 sites designated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for burning of debris and that some of the observation towers built at the sites were not structurally sound.

OSHA has been doing industrial hygiene sampling at sites, noted Honaker, for potential hazards such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, organic vapors and total hydrocarbons, as well as noise. Of the 184 direct samples, he said, only one had shown an overexposure - noise from a chainsaw. The agency also has 300 personal samples being analyzed at a lab. Honaker said early results show no overexposures.

Cindy Coe Laseter, OSHA's Region 4 administrator, said the agency has done approximately 2,000 technical assistance visits in Mississippi since the storms hit. "We've passed out thousands and thousands of fact sheets on a wide variety of topics, held impromptu safety briefings with crews and done training," she said. Many of these visits involve small crews, she said. "Even though FEMA is contracting with larger companies like Bechtel and J&P to do a lot of the work, there is so much work to do that a lot of the smaller companies are also moving in," she reported. "They are the challenge for us because it is harder for us to round them up and give them training. That's why being out in the field and just roaming around, stopping and talking to them when we run across them is so important." Along with advice and training, OSHA personnel have had supplies of PPE that they can give workers.

Enforcement Controversy

While OSHA is proud of the efforts of its employees working 12-hour, 7 days-a-week shifts, the agency and the federal government in general have not been immune from criticism about their protection efforts.

On Oct. 6, a letter signed by 124 organizations and 104 individuals warneded that "Thousands of disaster responders, workers and volunteers in the Gulf Coast areas affected by Hurricane Katrina remain inadequately protected against exposure to environmental health hazards."

Much of the criticism centered on federal policy that called for OSHA to act in an advisory role in the aftermath of the hurricanes. Juan Alvarez, director, Latin American Organization for Immigrant Rights in Houston, complained: "Contractors are hiring immigrant workers right here in Houston and taking them to New Orleans to do cleanup. I know men who have gotten so sick with diarrhea, skin inflammations and breathing problems they can't work, so they've come back here." Alvarez said the federal government "has created this situation by not enforcing safety and health laws and by putting a 45-day moratorium on enforcing the laws against employing undocumented workers, so the federal government must take the responsibility for keeping them safe."

Sens. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo. and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., introduced a bill that calls on OSHA to "deploy sufficient personnel to the region to successfully carry out its mission, including enforcement of and education about safety standards and rights." The bill, S. 1771, would also authorize additional appropriations to pay for those personnel.

But while some OSHA officials admit they would welcome additional resources, they say the image of a toxic stew painted by some groups is not supported by their test data. And they argue that using enforcement too soon would simply result in prolonged legal battles. "All an employer has to do is file a contest and we are caught in a court battle," said Greg Baxter, OSHA's Region 8 administrator and the field liaison for the federal annex plan. "This allows us to provide a broader range of service."

Indeed, as the cleanup goes forward over the coming months, broad considerations of what employee safety and health means will have to be addressed, say experts such as CHS' National Director Jennifer Lim, a nurse trained in critical incident stress debriefing. She said workers caught in these disasters need a variety of services - from help with housing and food to immunizations to dealing with separation from families and guilt over things like the looting of workplace tools. She said new health concerns could continue to surface over time and stressed the need for a multidisciplinary approach to worker protection.

"People inherently can do amazing things if they feel supported," she said. "If they feel stranded, then you see all types of unhealthy behaviors.

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