For my parents' generation, a defining moment was the day President John F. Kennedy was shot. My parents and their friends all could remember what they were doing at the precise moment they heard the news. For my generation, a defining moment was September 11, 2001.
It was a beautiful late-summer day where I live, and I was catching up with an old friend from college now living in New York City. Another college friend was visiting her from San Francisco, and they were planning a sight-seeing trip that included the observation deck of the World Trade Center, which wouldn't open until 9:30 a.m. While we were on the phone, the North Tower of the World Trade Center was struck by American Airlines Flight 11. We quickly ended our call, thinking it was a freak accident. We soon would learn the truth.
In the months and weeks and years that followed, EHS Today covered the efforts by OSHA and EPA to protect workers and residents from the hazards found at Ground Zero. Amid complaints that not enough was being done to protect workers, OSHA began random inspections in February 2002. Local groups such as the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) charged that many workers cleaning up debris inside buildings near the former WTC were not wearing respirators and other personal protective equipment (PPE), despite the presence of asbestos and other hazards in the material they were removing.
"There is a certain enthusiasm in liberty, that makes human nature rise above itself, in acts of bravery and heroism." ~ Alexander Hamilton.
OSHA's efforts fell flat with many (See "House Dems: OSHA Failed to Protect 9/11 Workers"), and in October 2007, the House Education and Labor Committee convened a hearing to talk about the health hazards faced by Ground Zero workers. “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., at the time.
Patricia Clark, OSHA regional administrator for Region II, defended OSHA's actions, saying that while the agency considered issuing citations for workers not wearing PPE, it had decided against it because employers would have contested the citations and it would have triggered months or even years of litigation. Clark called the clean up effort a success because no fatalities were recorded during the clean up operation.
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the committee at that time, told her that taking enforcement 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, suffered. Cordero testified before the committee, claiming that due to the lack of respirators available at the site, he suffered from a number of respiratory ailments.
Former EPA Administrator Christine Whitman also testified before the committee, telling them that when she declared that the air around Ground Zero was safe in the Sept. 11 aftermath, she based her decision on the assurances of agency scientists. Whitman claimed that reassurances that the air quality was safe pertained to lower Manhattan, not at Ground Zero. She insisted that she always distinguished between the two, although earlier press releases from EPA were at odds with her claim.
According to a report released in 2003 by the Inspector General (IG) of EPA, despite evidence that deadly contaminants were contained in the WTC debris, including asbestos, lead, glass fibers and concrete, the EPA did not accurately convey information about the potential health hazards these substances posed.
"...We have accumulated a mountain of evidence that tens of thousands of those exposed [to the air at and around Ground Zero] are suffering from chronic respiratory disease, and, increasingly, a variety of rare cancers,” Nadler told her.
Still, there were a number of safety professionals at Ground Zero, and many of them shared their experiences with our readers in articles like "Six Days at Ground Zero" and "Safety Professionals Recount Time Spent at Ground Zero." We also recounted the lessons learned in "9/11: Safety and Health Lessons Learned."
Today we remember the 2,977 victims of September 11 – most of them people who had gone to work or were on a business trip like any other day – and the thousands of rescue, recovery and clean up workers who labored for months to try to help the victims' families find closure and clear the site of debris with little concern for their own health and safety.