Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Bipartisan Senate Concern About Gulf Recovery Workers

I'm not entirely sure where, if anywhere, this bill will go, but it's nice to see some semblance of bipartisan concern in the Senate about the risks facing Gulf Coast recovery workers.

Senators Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) and Mike Enzi (R-WY) have introduced the bipartisan S 1771 "Katrina Worker Safety and Filing Flexibility Act of 2005." Recognizing that recovery workers face "numerous and uncommon worksite and environmental hazards...with which they have little prior experience or training," the bill attempts to address many of the hazards facing recovery workers.

The bill addresses many of the real and potential problems with OSHA's response, including lack of resources, problems with immigrant workers, the lack of information about workers' rights.

The bill calls for OSHA to:
  • implement all of the relevant provisions of the Worker Health and Safety Annex plan;

  • Go beyond the rather wishy-washy "let's all be careful out there" public service announcements that OSHA is producing to develop "methods to provide workers and employers with the information they need to maintain a safe workplace, including their rights and obligations under health and safety laws" and to work with "contractors and labor organizations to reach all employers and workers involved in the emergency response, recovery, and reconstruction;"

  • Address the problems of immigrant and non-English speaking workers, working to communicate with them "about safety rights, resources, and requirements"

  • Deploy sufficient personnel to the region to successfully carry out their mission, including enforcement of and education about safety standards and rights;

  • The only reference to the fact that public employees in all of the affected states do not have OSHA coverage was language calling on OSHA to "work with State, local, and tribal governments to ensure the availability and management of all available safety resources for emergency response, recovery, and reconstruction workers."

  • And the bill calls on OSHA to work with all other federal agencies to identify hazards and solutions, and to make sure that employees engaged in clean-up of hazardous materials have personal protective equipment

  • And finally that OSHA work specifically with EPA and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences "to provide technical assistance and training for workers covered by Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response Standards."

    The bill would also provide money for OSHA to provide sufficient personnel, enforcement and to offer safety training and resources "to affected workers and employers", and provides for oversite by the Department of Labor's Inspector General and frequent reports to Congress.
The bill was introduced on September 26 shortly before hundreds of occupational safety and health experts sent a letter calling on Congress to immediately to protect the health and safety of workers and residents engaged in the cleanup of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

Jim Nash of Occupational Hazards notes that
By encouraging, rather than requiring, enforcement of OSHA safety rules, the Enzi-Kennedy bill appears to stop short of some of the demands contained in a letter sent to Congress Oct. 6 from more than 100 labor, religious, environmental and public health leaders and organizations.

The letter states that "thousands of disaster responders ... affected by Hurricane Katrina remain inadequately protected against exposure to environmental health hazards." The letter argues that the decision made by OSHA to provided technical assistance and advice but not enforcement actions for cleanup efforts at Ground Zero following 9/11, was partially responsible for many workplace illnesses. The lessons learned following 9/11 must be applied to the cleanup of Katrina, according to the letter.

One month after the hurricane, the signers believe that EPA and OSHA "should immediately commence enforcement of life-saving workplace and environmental laws and regulations.