OSHA Starts Random Inspections Near Ground Zero

OSHA begins a local emphasis program in Lower Manhattan amid continuing complaints that local and federal officials are not doing enough to protect workers in areas around the WTC site.

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Amid continuing complaints that local and federal officials are not doing enough to protect workers in the area adjacent to the World Trade Center (WTC), recently Pat Clark, OSHA''s Region Two director, announced the agency would begin a local emphasis program (LEP) in Lower Manhattan.

Local groups such as the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) have charged that many workers cleaning up debris inside buildings near the former WTC are not wearing respirators and other personal protective equipment (PPE), despite the presence of asbestos and other hazards in the material they are removing.

Prior to the announcement of its new LEP, OSHA had done no inspections of buildings in the area because there had been no complaints from workers or community groups, despite OSHA''s bilingual efforts to encourage those with medical problems to contact the agency.

"That''s really why I decided to take this other approach," said Clark. "If we''re not going to get to the places through complaints, then we''re going to get in through another door."

The LEP means the agency draws up a list of sites where it suspects the clean up of hazardous material is occurring, and then randomly selects a group of buildings from this universe to visit. Full safety and health inspections may result.

As of Feb. 11, Rich Mendelson, OSHA''s Manhattan area director, said 10 sites had been visited and eight inspections opened. Air and bulk samples were taken for asbestos and silica, though results are not yet available.

"We will keep doing inspections for as long as we feel the situation warrants it," Mendelson promised.

OSHA''s new LEP comes not a moment too soon for Joel Shufro, executive director of NYCOSH. "Many buildings were heavily contaminated with dust from the World Trade Center," said Shufro. "There have been numerous bulk samples showing contamination of up to 5 percent asbestos in some of the office buildings."

Shufro noted that according to EPA, the dust in Lower Manhattan buildings "must be considered as containing asbestos," although the agency has not publicly stated that the dust contains 1 percent asbestos.

Anything with at least 1 percent asbestos is officially designated "asbestos-containing material" triggering a slew of regulatory requirements. Both EPA and OSHA have stated all workers engaged in clean up operations of buildings near the WTC site should wear proper PPE, including p-100 respirators.

A random walk near the WTC site confirmed the concerns raised by NYCOSH. Several workers were found who were waiting to be hired for ongoing cleanup efforts. All of the workers interviewed were Spanish-speaking males who knew little English, and who said they had worked for contractors hired to clean up nearby buildings since Sept. 11. None wanted his name used because of fears of retribution by local contractors.

Those interviewed said most employers did at least attempt to provide proper PPE. But the workers also cited a range of safety problems, from the lack of shower facilities, to the lack of proper fit-testing and filter replacements for respirators. "If 20 percent of the workers were wearing respirators, that was a lot," said one.

Another stated the real problem stemmed from the failure of workers to adopt a "safety culture," so that many did not wear respirators even when handed out by contractors.

A clean-up effort on the second floor of 189 Dey St., located one block from the current WTC recovery area, may indicate why OSHA decided to launch its LEP. The supervisor on hand at the site, a retailer named "The World of Golf," said E & G Maintenance Co. was hired by the building manager to do the work.

A thick layer of dust covered everything in the showroom as several workers wearing protective clothing prepared to begin cleaning operations. A vacuum cleaner stood beside long display rows of golf clubs coated with dust that could contain asbestos.

One of the workers was wearing a dust mask. No one wore a respirator.

By James Nash

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