Tuesday, April 13, 2004

OSHA Will Enforce Emergency Safety Measures -- Except in an Emergency

In its new National Emergency Management Plan (NEMP), the agency has clarified that in the future, OSHA will not enforce safety rules, but will instead "provide technical assistance during large-scale emergencies," according to an OSHA official. A major part of OSHA's assistance role during the emergency phase of nationally significant incidents "includes the assessment and the management of the risks faced by first responders and recovery workers," the official explained.
Joel Shufro, executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), was not pleased. NYCOSH has focused much of its efforts since 9/11 on exploring the health effects suffered by World Trade Center clean-up workers and has been a major critic OSHA's handling of safety and health at the former WTC site.
"Now, literally 6,000 heroic workers who responded in that emergency are seriously ill... OSHA's NEMP has some shocking flaws," commented Shufro. "OSHA's role will be limited to providing 'advice and consultation' with the result that standards that are specifically designed for emergencies, such as the Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response standard will be treated as merely advisory."
According to Donald Elisberg, who helped prepare a report for the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences on the lessons learned from the recovery operations at the WTC:
"The question is not whether someone will get cited," Elisburg contended, "but who in fact is responsible for the health and safety of first responders and skilled support personnel. Someone has to say: 'You are required to wear a respirator,' and assure it's done."

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) appears to be following Elisburg's advice. In March, DHS released a memorandum spelling out NIMS, "a core set of principles" that will "enable effective, efficient, and collaborative incident management at all levels. The document provides for a safety officer (SO) who has the ultimate responsibility for the safety of workers and who reports directly to the incident commander. The SO has "emergency authority to stop or prevent unsafe acts during incident operations."

The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), a part of DHS, has been charged with carrying out the management of future emergency recovery operations. A FEMA official explained that NIMS requires compliance with all OSHA regulations. Aside from the SO's emergency power to stop unsafe acts, however, it not clear how safety and health standards will be enforced.

UPDATE: The quotation above may leave the impression that Don Elisberg is not in favor of OSHA enforcement of PPE standards during emergencies, which is not the case. The important point is that workers wear respirators when needed and that OSHA fulfill its role to enforce the wearing of respirators. Citations are one means -- and an important means -- to make sure that happens. Someone has to say: 'You are required to wear a respirator,' and assure it's done." OSHA can't be everywhere but they need to enforce the law so that H&S managers have some back up to correct problems and yes, have responders wear respirators. We need both effective (and fair) management and a clear enforceable OSHA policy on PPE.