Monday, September 11, 2006

OSHA After 9/11: Air At Ground Zero Is "Safe"

Although the piece I wrote last night mostly focused on EPA's public announcements following 9/11, OSHA"s may have been even worse. This is from a press release on September 25, 2001:
OSHA is also testing daily for asbestos, silica, lead and other contaminants. Test results continue to show no cause for concern in areas immediately surrounding ground zero and in public areas.

"I'm proud that OSHA staff are contributing directly to the protection of the search and rescue workers," said OSHA Administrator John L. Henshaw. "Our goal is to provide as much help as we can; we are not there in an enforcement role."

OSHA took immediate steps following the Sept. 11, 2001, disaster to coordinate with other federal, state and local agencies. After initial contact with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and various New York City agencies, OSHA sent industrial hygienists and safety officers to the Financial District and some rescue locations.

The agency took its first air and bulk samples on Sept. 13. The monitoring program is continuing, according to Pat Clark, OSHA's New York Regional Administrator, and now includes air sampling directly at the debris pile.

"We have taken over 200 air and bulk samples," Clark said. "Though the levels have been consistently safe, it is important that we continue to make sure the sampling continues through the various stages of the operation."(emphasis added)
Now there are more than a few problems with this statement. You can find your own, but I'll start with these:
  1. First, obviously, the statement was wrong, as confirmed by last week's Mount Sinai study that shows that 80% of those who worked at Ground Zero have suffered severe respiratory problems.
  2. Whatever OSHA's intention was here, this press release certainly give the impression that not only is the air safe "in areas immediately surrounding ground zero and in public areas." but also at Ground Zero where bulk samples "levels have been consistently safe" .
  3. Everyone knows that OSHA standards only cover a very small number of toxic chemicals in existence, so the fact that OSHA limits aren't exceeded does not mean that the air is "safe."
  4. OSHA is not taking into account unknown synergistic effects of the thousands of pulverized, burning substances. No one knows (yet) what the possible health effects could be, but it doesn't take an industrial hygienist to suspect that they're bad -- possibly very bad. And because you don't know exactly what the effects of the toxic brew were unknown, does not give OSHA the license to say that the air is "safe."
  5. Given all this, one wonders what the point of air monitoring was anyway. Finding something bad (high asbestos levels, for example) might have been meaningful and helped focus on appropriate protections and surveillance. But finding nothing "of concern" is meaningless, and does not mean that conditions are safe.

Now, of course, people can (and often do) argue quite legitimately than hindsight is always 20-20. Things that seem completely obvious once we know the outcome were really not so clear at the time. Choices that seem incredibly dumb now, made perfect sense at the time given the knowledge that people had.


But other people and organizations didn't have to wait for 20-20 hindsight. Compare OSHA's press release with a fact sheet issued by the New York Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) less than a week after the attack, which warned that

Contaminants in the air, including toxic dust and chemicals, can cause serious illness or death. Dust and ash anywhere in the vicinity of the World Trade Center site is likely to contain asbestos, cement, drywall and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) combustion products.

and that
Respirators are designed to provide protection from specific air contaminants. If you are wearing a respirator for protection from one substance, do not assume that it provides protection from any other substance. A respirator does not provide any protection if it does not fit properly, or if the seal is compromised by dirt.

A 'DUST MASK' IS NOT A RESPIRATOR and does not provide protection from asbestos, silica or other hazardous particulates.

And this is from a September 19, 200 1 news article

There were initial fears that a toxic cloud of asbestos fibers had been released when the buildings collapsed, but air and dust sampling by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration since Sep. 13 has revealed either no asbestos in the air, or relatively low levels -- from 2.1 to 3.3 percent, compared to a one-percent threshold.

A fleet of huge vacuum trucks was deployed over the weekend to suck up much of the dust. Still, some office workers returning to the financial district yesterday wore paper face masks -- although these are ineffective in blocking ultra-fine asbestos fibers.

Doctors stress that permanent health damage from asbestos fibers, once used as an insulation material but now banned, almost always results from long-term exposure.
More difficult to assess are the numerous other chemical compounds released during the iniktial jet fuel inferno and the susequent explosive collapse. Benzene, formaldehyde, polychlorinated hydrocarbons, andcountless other carcinogens were, and still are, present at the site, as are poisonous gases containing carbon monoxide and cyanide.

Aside from the known hazards, the fusing of glass, concrete, electronics parts, plastics and countless other materials in the towers created new and potentially deadly compounds.

"We have a unique situation that can produce some unique combinations of chemicals," said Cynthia Wilson, executive director of the Chemical Injury Information Network, a non-profit advocacy group.


Experts said the long-term consequences for the thousands of people who were massively exposed when the buildings came down, and for workers now at the site, are impossible to gauge at this point.

"If someone is ill now, they'll probably be okay. If they're still ill in three months, they have something to be concerned about," Wilson said.

Now, I've gotten some mail criticizing me for blaming the government for everything when thousands of respirators were handed out and workers simply chose not to use them. Just a few responses to that. First, there is lots of testimony from workers saying that, especially at first, there weren't enough respirators. But even afterwards, it takes more than just a respirator to be safe. OSHA requires fit testing, training and medical examinations before workers can use respirators. In addition, respirators are hot and uncomfortable, particularly when they have to be worn all day, and they impede communication. In order to make sure that workers use them, there needs to be enforcement -- from the employer, and if that doesn't work, from OSHA.

The other problem, of course was that OSHA wasn't "in enforcement mode," as I've discussed before, choosing instead to "provide guidance and assistance." No one would expect (or tolerate) OSHA taking the time and trouble to write out citations to employers in the initial, frantic life-saving period immediately after the attack (although one hopes that today, five years later, first reponders would be better equipped). But OSHA's "guidance and assistance" mode lasted far beyond the initial rescue efforts -- all the way to the end of the nine-month cleanup.

The bottom line is that the law requires the employer to provide a safe workplace -- and that should mean that no one works without respirators, just as no one should be working at any heights without fall protection, or in a trench without shoring. If the employer is not doing that, it is OSHA's responsibility to ensure that workers are safe. Citations are only one tool that OSHA has to fulfill its mandate to ensure worker safety. As I've written before, workers at Fresh Kills (where the debris was taken) and at the Pentagon were not allowed to work without respirators.

And even those mistakes might have been fine if there was some evidence that the federal government had learned from its mistakes. But just the opposite has occurred. OSHA and the Department of Homeland Security have essentially decided that it would be inappropriate to enforce emergency response safety regulations during actual national emergencies. In fact,
federal National Response Plan determines that OSHA must defer to Joint Field Office Coordination, and that OSHA’s role is to provide “advice and support,” not to enforce the law.

And, in fact, the same mistakes were made following Hurricane Katrina. OSHA did not resume regular enforcement in the area south of Interstate 10 in Mississippi until June 28, 2006. The agency has still not resumed regular enforcement in the hurricane ravaged areas of Louisiana. And much of OSHA's effort in the Gulf, according to observers, was to provide assistance for government contractors, not the day-laborers hired by homeowners to mostly do demolition work on the thousands of homes that need to be torn down.

Finally, on this fifth anniversary of 9/11, I want to add one more thing. Although I find the government response to the potential health effects of the twin towers to be inadquate (to put it mildly), I do want to recognize the dedication and heroic efforts of OSHA and EPA staff throughout the clean-up effort. They were there 24/7 focused on one goal: making sure no one got killed -- and, in fact, no one was killed in any accident while the pile was being removed.

That meant extreme hardship, weeks and months away from families, and dealing with the same trauma that the recovery workers had to deal with. And, although I'm sure they were all wearing respiratory protection, I wouldn't be surprised if some of them may also be suffering health effects or post-traumatic stress disorder from the work they did there. And while the criticism here and elsewhere may be somewhat demoralizing, one hopes that in the end, OSHA and EPA will learn from their errors should such a horrific even ever occur again.