In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, OSHA should have taken the lead in protecting emergency workers and volunteers who responded after the collapse of the towers, but fell short in its mission, House legislators charged.
At a heated hearing of the House Education and Labor Committee held the day after the sixth anniversary of 9/11, Democratic legislators claimed OSHA failed to protect Ground Zero workers by not enforcing health and safety procedures.
“OSHA failed to enforce its own regulations at the World Trade Center site and now, 70 percent of the first responders are sick and others have died,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.
OSHA regional director Patricia Clark defended the agency, stating it conducted more than 24,000 analyses of individual air samples to quantify exposure to contaminants, which revealed that exposure to substances and chemicals that were in the air at the time were below the agency's permissible exposure limit. In addition, Clark said the agency distributed more than 131,00 respirators during the 10-month recovery period and posted compliance officers at the 16-acre site's various entry points to check if the workers were wearing respirators and prevent them from entering the site if they weren't.
“The message was loud and clear that any worker in that area was required to wear protection,” Clark said, noting that there were times workers even got defensive when they were repeatedly told to wear respirators.
She also stated the agency did at one point consider issuing citations if workers were found not wearing respirators, but decided that it wasn't an appropriate measure at the time. The agency feared the process would be too time-consuming because it was felt that employers would contest the citations.
According to Committee chairman Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., taking action would have helped prevent the illnesses many of the rescue workers such as Freddy Cordero, former member of the “bucket brigade” at Ground Zero, are suffering today. Cordero testified before the committee, claiming that due to the lack of personal protective equipment available at the site, he now is suffering from a whole slew of respiratory ailments.
Still, Clark claimed the rescue and recovery effort was a success because there wasn't a single fatality during the clean-up operation, which took place in a very high risk and dangerous environment. This statement visibly irritated Nadler.
“Do you really think this was a success?” Nadler exclaimed. “When 70 percent of responders are sick, it was not a success, it was a catastrophic failure.”
Dr. James Melius, the administrator of New York State Laborers' Health and Safety Trust Fund, emphasized that OSHA should be the one in charge of making sure that worker protections are being implemented in an emergency response situation, and not delegated to different federal and local agencies as it was at Ground Zero.
“When the implementation of worker safety is being delegated to different agencies, the rate of compliance varies,” said Melius. “Some groups had excellent compliance, while in other groups, nobody was wearing respirators.”
But according to Brian Jackson, associate director of RAND Corp.'s homeland security program, it isn't a question of who should be in charge, but a matter of creating a structure where different agencies can come together and agree on what decisions should be made and how those decisions should be implemented.
“To protect emergency workers at any major disaster, there must be an incident safety management structure in place that can make difficult safety decisions and has the equipment, capabilities and authority needed to implement and enforce them effectively,” Jackson said. “This did not happen at the World Trade Center response for a number of reasons, and, as a result, the response workers there were left unprotected from many of the risks at the site.”