Owens noted that more than two months after Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf region, thousands of recovery and reconstruction workers remain in "harm's way" because, he claims, OSHA is not enforcing federal safety and health standards.
"The bill before us does not address the serious health and safety problems of these workers," said Owens. "The bill also does not address the 'right of return' concerns of the Congressional Black Caucus. Residents need work under safe conditions. Employment of residents should not be undermined by an expanded volunteer project."
An OSHA spokesperson, speaking on the condition of anonymity, commented, "In an emergency response situation such as the hurricane recovery operations, OSHA provides technical assistance to workers and employers engaged in rescue and recovery work. Enforcement through standard investigations and citations is conducted in response to fatalities, complaints or catastrophes."
Further, the spokesperson noted, "Hundreds of OSHA staff have been deployed in the hurricane-affected areas of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. Since the response work began, OSHA staff intervened with more than 10,000 workers or work crews to provide technical assistance. This effort has resulted in the removal of approximately 32,000 workers from hazardous situations – more than half of those removed from potentially imminent danger situations."
Owens claims that to date, OSHA has not conducted a comprehensive assessment of the hazards now facing clean-up and recovery workers in Louisiana, Mississippi and other areas decimated by Katrina, let alone hit by Rita. Likewise, he adds, OSHA has failed to specify what types of personal protective equipment (PPE) are required for different clean-up, recovery and reconstruction tasks being carried out by workers in Katrina and Rita-affected areas. Also, says Major, OSHA has failed to lay out the minimum safety training required for various gulf coast clean-up, recovery and reconstruction workers, in accordance with nationally agreed upon standards.
"Given OSHA's failure to act in response to Katrina and Rita, the last thing needed at this juncture is specific authority to recruit, train, use and pay for an unlimited number of volunteers to carry out non-enforcement projects vaguely characterized as 'related to worker safety and health.' Likewise, OSHA does not need new authority to distribute respirators and other safety equipment, having done so with countless supplies donated by manufacturers for clean-up at Ground Zero," Major claimed.
For its part, the agency says it is doing its job in the region.
OSHA's response team is systematically visiting electric and telecommunications utility restoration, construction, debris removal and tree trimming staging areas to provide advice and information on hazards these workers will encounter, such as downed power lines, tree damage, debris, home and building damage, road clearing, crane activity and flood water. OSHA inspectors and compliance and consultative program officers are advising employers and workers on use of personnel protective equipment and other safety measures.
At the national office, OSHA employees staffed the Interagency Incident Management Group and Health and Human Services secretary's Emergency Operations Center. OSHA staff members coordinated requests from the field with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the departments of Homeland Security, Defense, Agriculture and Health and Human Services, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and other Department of Labor agencies.
After Hurricane Katrina made landfall, FEMA activated the Worker Safety and Health Support Annex under the National Response Plan. The annex describes actions needed to ensure that threats to responder safety and health are anticipated, recognized, evaluated and controlled consistently so that responders are properly protected during incident management operations. OSHA was charged with coordinating technical support for federal responder and federal contractor safety and health during cleanup and recovery operations in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Following Hurricane Rita, the annex was extended to cover Texas responders and contractors.
OSHA produced informational materials, including 37 fact sheets and eight "quick cards" - two-sided, 4-by-9 inch cards with safety and health tips-on hazards such as molds and fungi, downed electrical wires and general decontamination, to name a few. Thousands of these "tools" have been printed, laminated and put in the hands of clean-up and recovery workers throughout the Gulf Coast area.
"Our goal is safe and healthy workers," said Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor-OSHA Jonathan Snare. "These materials provide concise, expert information that will help workers avoid the vast array of hazards they will encounter during the Gulf Coast clean-up and recovery operations."
Owens appears to be taking the agency to task for serving as an advisor for both hurricane cleanup workers and the cleanup workers involved in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
"Already, there are reports in the press of a 'Katrina cough' caused by exposure to toxic mold and contaminated dust left by the receding flood waters. These waters contained high levels of gasoline, sewage, bacteria, lead, mercury, pesticides, and other serious toxins. It only took several months after 9/11 before there were similar reports by physicians of a 'World Trade Center cough' afflicting first responders and recovery workers," said Owens.
Those workers were exposed to dust contaminated by asbestos, glass fibers, concrete dust, lead and other hazardous substances. Growing numbers of 9/11 rescue and recovery workers have had to retire on permanent disability because of chronic respiratory illness. Owens further claims that other workers have died, "their lungs scarred beyond repair, because they were unprotected from Ground Zero toxins. They died because in overseeing work at Ground Zero, OSHA decided not to enforce health and safety standards."