Legislators Question Enforcement Suspension After Disasters

House lawmakers asked Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Education and Workforce, to hold hearings to determine whether the practice of suspending enforcement of worker safety laws in places affected by major disasters such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina last year, has become a Bush administration policy.

Eight legislators, led by Rep. George Miller D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the committee, said that reports of subsequent illness, disability and death among rescue and recovery workers show the serious need for Congress to conduct oversight hearings.

"It appears that OSHA's decision to forestall any safety enforcement and limit itself to providing only advice and technical assistance at Ground Zero was a major factor in the failure to safeguard thousands of workers at the site," the lawmakers wrote in a letter to McKeon. "In light of the fact that OSHA repeated its decision to halt enforcement of safety rules in the aftermath of another national disaster, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, immediate Congressional oversight is critical."

OSHA: Exemption was for Faster and Flexible Response

After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, OSHA exempted a number of counties and parishes in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana from regular enforcement status, limiting inspections to cases involving fatalities, catastrophic accidents or complaints.

On Jan. 20, OSHA resumed regular enforcement in most of the Gulf Coast except in several parishes in Louisiana and south of interstate 10 in Mississippi. Enforcement of the southern part of Mississippi was recently resumed on June 28.

According to OSHA, exempting a number of counties and parishes throughout the Gulf Coast was a means for the agency to provide "faster and more flexible responses to hazards facing workers involved in the cleanup and recovery."

In the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks and cleanup efforts, reports of recovery workers falling ill have increased. For instance, news of the death of NYPD detective James Zadroga at age 34 in December as a result of respiratory disease after working at Ground Zero for more than 500 hours have indicated that workers involved in the recovery were not well protected from debris and other contaminants that lingered at the site.

In a statement released on May 30, 2002 the day the recovery and cleanup of the WTC site ended Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao stated that the Department of Labor and OSHA did everything to protect workers involved in the cleanup and recovery.

"We are proud that over 1,000 Department of Labor and OSHA staff from New York and around the country worked on the site providing safety and health consultation services, performing air sampling and monitoring and collecting other safety data," she said. "Over 6,100 workers, including 2,700 New York City fire department employees, were fit-tested for respirators; more than 130,000 respirators were distributed on-site, and in excess of 6,000 personal, area and bulk samples of hazardous substances were collected."

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