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

Jan. 10, 2005
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 October 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 under way 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 October 6, a letter signed by 124 organizations and 104 individuals warned 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.

Sidebar: Chertoff Gets First-Hand Accounts from Gulf Region Fire Fighters

By Sandy Smith

Michael Chertoff, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, received first-hand accounts of life as a responder from New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish fire fighters and a report on first responder relief efforts from International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) General President Harold A. Schaitberger.

Schaitberger invited Chertoff to meet with fire fighters from New Orleans and the Gulf region to hear their stories of struggle and survival firsthand. He heard from fire fighters who stayed behind to do their jobs in the aftermath of Katrina, said Schaitberger. Many of those fire fighters and responders "performed daring rescues and evacuations without seeing or hearing from a single federal agency for many days," he said, adding, "I'm sure he won't soon forget the stories shared with him."

The IAFF has more than 3,000 members in the immediate high-impact zone and another 3,000 in the lesser-hit areas. The great majority, about 80 percent, of fire fighters who live in the hard-hit areas including New Orleans, St. Bernard and Jefferson Parish, Mandeville, Slidell, Gulfport and Biloxi suffered either total or almost total loss of their personal property. Despite their personal losses, all were working before, during and after the storm, preparing residents, rescuing and saving lives, clearing trees and doing all they could for their communities.

"I have been in the region twice immediately following the storm to oversee our union's efforts to support the work of our members, as well as to support them personally. I have been impressed by all that is being done on the ground, from getting supplies to the crews, to helping them track down their loved ones, to providing them with much needed psychological support, to helping them rebuild their lives," said Schaitberger.

Like Being on an Island

In St. Bernard Parish, fire fighters said the first 96-120 hours were like being on an island by themselves. St. Bernard Local 1468 fire fighters performed rescues in boats for three days, evacuating about half of the citizens without any outside assistance or resources from federal or state agencies.

"We were on our own," fire fighter and Local President Louis Menesses said. "We had to start taking provisions from our own stores to survive. I slept on the roof of a school for three nights, which was a good place to sleep compared to where some were sleeping."

The first communication St. Bernard fire fighters had with the 'outside world' was with the union. "Luckily, one of our guys who was stranded in the Domino Sugar Factory was able to get a cell phone signal and got a call to union Vice President Danny Todd. They came in by tugboat to deliver the first supplies any of us saw. It sounds odd, but the best thing I saw coming down the river was a box of clean underwear and socks from the IAFF," Menesses said.

There is not one livable home among the 35,000 residents. He added, "We have no idea what the future holds."

New Orleans Local 632 President Nick Felton shared stories from the initial days of the storm and what they did in the first hours to respond to building collapses. "Once water started to rise, everything fell apart. The department did not give us any resources. The command structure failed," he said.

Felton finally got in contact with the IAFF command in Baton Rouge, who alerted and worked with the National Guard to get them out. "We were all surprised and relieved that we didn't lose any fire fighters before that rescue," Felton said adding, "The command structure broke down – we were literally left to our own devices. Initially, we were able to rescue people by boat, but as the violence escalated, we could no longer even do that because of the threat of armed takeover. My station even came under armed siege and we had to be airlifted out."

"With so much of the city underwater," Felton said, "we are very concerned about the toxic water and what it could do to our members. Dogs, cats, snakes and alligators who had been swimming in that water have died, and our guys have been in it too," he said.

Sidebar: EPA Advisors: Katrina Response Shows Failure To Address 9/11 Concerns

At a meeting on Sept. 28, members of EPA's Science Advisory Board told EPA Deputy Administrator Marcus Peacock and Chief Science Advisor Dr. William Farland that the agency's response to Hurricane Katrina indicates that the recommendations made by the agency's inspector general (IG) following 9/11 have not been implemented, despite EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson's contention that the agency has learned its lessons.

SAB members said EPA has not developed methods to evaluate acute exposure hazards following a chemical or biological emergency, despite recommendations following 9/11 that the agency improve its ability to assess such risks.

At a press conference in September, Johnson acknowledged, "One of the lessons learned from post-9/11 is the importance of getting the information [about chemical and biological hazards] out to communities."

Following 9/11, EPA officials claimed that the air near Ground Zero in Manhattan was safe to breathe, even though they lacked the scientific data necessary to back up their statements. The agency was roundly criticized for those claims – which many claim were false and premature – and vowed to make changes. At the time, EPA's IG recommended that EPA develop an emergency sampling plan to be used as a guidance for monitoring environmental conditions after a large-scale disaster such as 9/11 or a hurricane or fire. The IG said the plan should address quality control, objectives of the monitoring program, preferred sampling methods, analytic methods and more.

Despite those recommendations, SAB members said they were shocked when the agency wanted to meet with them to discuss its sediment sampling plan over Labor Day weekend. One board member complained that after 4 years of federal emphasis on homeland security, the agency still had not developed sampling plans.

SAB Chair Dr. Granger Morgan, a Carnegie Mellon University professor, called the Hurricane Katrina response an opportunity to get emergency response plans "that would be more appropriate next time around. I would ask that the window not be lost."

Nikki Tinsley, EPA's IG, announced that her office will study the agency's response to Hurricane Katrina – including the quality of health information released to the public and the issuance of environmental waivers – for indications the agency implemented some of the recommendations made following 9/11.

Sidebar: Voinovich, Clinton Introduce First Responders Legislation

Senators George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and Senator Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), along with Representatives Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Christopher Shays (R-Ct.), have introduced legislation that would provide free medical screenings to first responders, volunteers and emergency personnel who respond to national disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The Disaster Area Health and Environmental Monitoring Act of 2005 authorizes the president to carry out a program for the protection, assessment, monitoring and study of the health and safety of emergency personnel, volunteers and workers who respond to a disaster and assist in the cleanup, if the president declares that a dangerous substance is being released. The program involves informing and protecting responders against possible health impacts, monitoring them over the short and long term, providing medical referrals and ensuring that any information is used to prevent or protect against future incidents.

The bill also provides for a two-year reauthorization of the Pre-Disaster Mitigation program, which is set to expire on Sept. 30, 2007. The program provides technical and financial assistance to states and local governments for projects to reduce the impact of a potential disaster, such as raising a building to make it resistant to flood damage. This assistance has been effective in saving lives, reducing disaster costs and protecting property since 2000 when the program was initially authorized.

"Through my own discussions with Ohio emergency personnel who responded to 9/11, I know that many of the Ground Zero first responders have experienced a variety of health problems, including respiratory illnesses, pneumonia and asthma. After 9/11, approximately 40,000 personnel, mostly first responders, answered the call. Many continue to face the possibility of long-term health issues," said Voinovich. "Now with nearly 86,000 federal, state and local personnel and first responders in the Gulf Coast responding to Hurricane Katrina, it's vital that we get this legislation passed."

He added that although the health effects of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are still unknown, "preparation is our best defense. If a horrific event occurs, those who risk their lives to respond must know that their health needs will be taken care of. This legislation will send a message to our first responders that America cares about its heroes."

Clinton noted that when disaster strikes, addressing public health – and the health of first responders – should be at the very top of the priority list, She added, "We have a moral obligation to track the health of first responders – immediately and over time – and provide them with information and assistance in receiving treatment so they can maintain, or regain, their good health."

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