At a heated hearing of the House Education and Labor Committee held the day after the sixth anniversary of 9/11, Democratic legislators claimed OSHA failed to protect Ground Zero workers by not enforcing health and safety procedures.
“OSHA failed to enforce its own regulations at the World Trade Center site and now, 70 percent of the first responders are sick and others have died,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.
According to an e-mail message sent on Oct. 7, 2001 to OSHA regional director Patricia Clark – who was present at the hearing – Kelly McKinney, associate commissioner for the New York City Bureau of Regulatory and Environmental Health Services in 2001, indicated that the city wanted the respirator rules enforced because “contractors fear” OSHA’s ability to issue penalties and that would encourage compliance. Although OSHA inspectors onsite encouraged workers to wear respirators, employers were not cited if they did not.
OSHA Required Use of Respirators to Enter Site
Clark defended the agency, stating it conducted more than 24,000 analyses of individual air samples to quantify exposure to contaminants, which revealed that exposure to substances and chemicals that were in the air at the time were below the agency's permissible exposure limit. In addition, Clark said the agency distributed more than 131,00 respirators during the 10-month recovery period and had compliance officers had various entry points at the 16-acre site to check if the workers were wearing them and prevent them from entering the site if they weren't.
“The message was loud and clear that any worker in that area was required to wear protection,” Clark said, noting that there were times workers even got defensive when they were repeatedly told to wear a respirator.
She also stated that the agency did at one point consider issuing citations if workers were found not wearing respirators but decided that it wasn't an appropriate measure at the time. The agency feared the process would be too time-consuming because it was felt that employers would contest the citations.
“I could not force immediate protections through the citation process because the law allows employers to contest,” Clark said. “We needed to protect workers immediately.”
According to Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the committee chairman, taking action would have helped prevent the illnesses many of the rescue workers such as Freddy Cordero, former member of the “bucket brigade” at Ground Zero, are suffering today. Cordero testified before the committee, claiming that due to the lack of personal protective equipment available at the site, he now is suffering from a whole slew of respiratory ailments.
“At some point, somebody has to stand up and make that decision [to enforce occupational safety and health regulations],” Miller said.
Dr. Phillip Landrigan, who oversees the medical program at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York that provides medical care to Cordero and other workers suffering from illnesses as a result of the World Trade Center cleanup, said the number of workers coming in to seek treatment are increasing each day. Landrigan said workers are incurring new illnesses as the chemicals they inhaled 6 years ago continue to interact with their DNA.
“Only through monitoring can we track and prevent new illnesses from occurring,” he said.
OSHA: Rescue and Recovery Was a Success
Despite everything, Clark claimed that the rescue and recovery effort was a success because there wasn't a single fatality during the clean-up operation, which took place in a very high risk and dangerous environment. This statement visibly irritated Nadler.
“Do you really think this was a success?" Nadler exclaimed. “When 70 percent of responders are sick, it was not a success, it was a catastrophic failure.”
Others testifying at the hearing appeared to agree with Nadler.
“The lack of more comprehensive OSHA involvement at the World Trade Center site – including enforcement –contributed to the development of these health problems,” said Dr. James Melius, the administrator of New York State Laborers’ Health and Safety Trust Fund. “We need a process that ensures OSHA involvement, including enforcement, starting with the early response to an incident similar to the WTC.”
Future Responses: More Structure Needed
Melius also emphasized that OSHA, as the federal agency that regulates workplace safety and health, should be the one in charge of making sure that worker protections are being implemented in an emergency response situation. It should not be delegated to different federal and local agencies as it was at Ground Zero, making it confusing for workers.
“When the implementation of worker safety is being delegated to different agencies, the rate of compliance varies,” said Melius. “Some groups had excellent compliance, while in other groups, nobody was wearing respirators.”
But according to Brian Jackson, associate director of RAND Corp.’s homeland security program, it isn't a question of who should be in charge, but a matter of looking at having a structure in place where different agencies can come together and agree on what decisions should be made and how those decisions should be implemented.
“To protect emergency workers at any major disaster, there must be an incident safety management structure in place that can make difficult safety decisions and has the equipment, capabilities and authority needed to implement and enforce them effectively,” Jackson said. “This did not happen at the World Trade Center response for a number of reasons, and, as a result, the response workers there were left unprotected from many of the risks at the site.”