Response to Anthrax Attacks: "We Blew It," Says OSHA Official

The failure to integrate industrial hygiene expertise into the 2001 cleanup of the Hart Senate office building led to unnecessary hazard exposures for workers and costly delays in completing the anthrax removal project, according to Robert Curtis, director of the program support division at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

"We blew it terms of protecting people from an agent we didn't know much about," asserted Curtis during a May 12 roundtable at the American Industrial Hygience Conference and Expo, held in Dallas. "Good industrial hygiene work practices would have normally protected people from exposure."

One reason OSHA was unable to provide timely technical assistance in the anthrax attacks is the agency was distracted by its involvement in responding to the World Trade Center disaster, according to Curtis. In addition, employers are normally responsible for the health and safety of their workers; since Congress is the employer at the Hart building, OSHA lacked authority and jurisdiction to compel appropriate work practices.

The situation at the U.S. Postal Service's (USPS) Brentwood facility was somewhat different, because USPS has more health and safety experience than does Congress.

Specific failures in the anthrax cleanup identified by Curtis included:

  • Heat stress experienced by over-protection of workers, who often wore two levels of protective clothing more appropriate to hazardous chemical spills; excessive protection also led to delays in finishing the project, as workers needed to take frequent breaks to "cool down;"
  • Negative air pressure from the contaminated area was not maintained nor directed outside - instead air from contaminated areas of the building was actually vented into clean parts of the building, further complicating the anthrax removal project;
  • Workers involved in the project were poorly trained, often non-English speaking, and as a result they did not always wear proper respiratory protection;
  • Poor air sampling;
  • An excessively rigid health and safety plan added to the cost and to delays in completing the project.

In retrospect, Curtis said he believed OSHA's HAZWOPER standard should have guided cleanup of both the Brentwood facility and the Hart building. The OSHA official, attached to the agency's Salt Lake Technical Center, spoke at a session devoted to "lessons learned" from the anthrax attacks.

He expressed the hope that the next time there is a chemical or biological attack, if there is a next time, OSHA will do better.

Fortunately, no workers died or became ill during the anthrax cleanup.

"We were able to dodge the bullet," Curtis commented. "We were lucky because it turned out anthrax was not as deadly as it could have been."

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