Monday, December 05, 2005

OSHA/FEMA Failing To Protect Day-Laborers In The Gulf

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration's effort in the New Orleans area is failing to protect day laborers and others who are not working for companies that are under FEMA contract, according to some OSHA state plan officials who have been volunteering in the recovery effort. Most of these workers are immigrants who speak limited English.

OSHA is operating under the Worker Safety and Health Support Annex of Homeland Security's National Response Plan., under which OSHA personnel addresses "protection of worker safety and health for all emergency responders and response organizations during potential and actual Incidents of National Significance." OSHA personnel is also expected to assist in "identification and characterization of incident hazards, assessments and analyses of health risks and exposures to responders, medical monitoring, and incident risk management."

The problem, according to the state-plan volunteers, is that OSHA is putting almost all of its effort into what is referred to there as "Annex" work: Minding and monitoring the activities of federal employees and contractors working under FEMA contracts -- but ignoring the hazards faced by the huge day labor workforce in New Orleans that is working for non-FEMA contractors, also known as "non-Annex" work.

According to one state plan volunteer:
These contractors are hired by homeowners to mostly do demolition work on the thousands of homes that need to be torn down. The day workers are dumped off in a neighborhood in the morning, told to tear the houses down, and picked up at night. They are given no PPE [personal protective equipment -- respirators, gloves, boots, etc] of any kind despite doing hazardous work in mold infested structures.
OSHA personnel is not addressing the hazards that these workers face unless there is an injury or a complaint, and given that most of these workers are immigrants who are easily inimidated and have limited knowledge of their rights, complaints are unlikely. Demolishing these structures is extremely dangerous. Not only are many of the buildings unstable, but they're filled with mold at levels rarely seen before, asbestos, lead and the residue of petroleum and other toxic chemical spills, in addition to safety hazards from falls, confined spaces, hazardous machinery and electrical hazards.

The problem is not a shortage of PPE, but to whom it is distributed. Some of the state-plan personnel have been forced to distribute PPE on their own. One of the state plan inspectors told of a team leader who was so moved by the desperate state of the day workers there that he stayed on for a few extra days on his own dime and bought cases of N95 respirators from Home Depot and drove thru Louisiana and Mississippi giving them out with a church group. That apparently didn't sit so well with a FEMA employee who got into a shouting match with him because she couldn't understand why he was helping the day laborers.

What we seem to be dealing with here is not a personal failure on the part of OSHA personnel, who by all reports are working hard under extremely difficult conditions, but a failure of OSHA and FEMA policy and willingness to address the huge issue of day-laborer health and safety in the Gulf region. Whether it's due to resource constraints, or just insensitivity, the day laborers are paying the price.

As one observer put it,
What at first seemed to some of us as a breakthrough (the Worker S&H Annex) in having the National Response Plan recognize the importance of responder safety and health has instead turned into a mechanism to legitimize the de-clawing of OSHA and placing the agency under the command and control of FEMA.
One state plan inspector reported that even the "Annex work" is frustrating because they're unable to enforce anything and FEMA/OSHA is very sensitive to any behavior that may be too "assertive." OSHA claims it's "not their job" to give out PPE. At least one contractor was found to be deducting the cost of PPE from workers' paychecks. (And wasn't there supposed to be a standard requiring employers to pay for workers' personal protective equipment?)

Another inspector noted that the Spanish-speaking workers he was assisting had trouble understanding the OSHA respirator fact sheets. One glance at OSHA's "Quick Card" on respirators, and it's easy to understand why they're having problems understanding the information, even when it's in Spanish:
The appropriate respirator will depend on the contaminant(s) to which you are exposed and the protection factor (PF) required. Required respirators must be NIOSH-approved and medical evaluation and training must be provided before use.
The main thing these workers wanted to know was why they needed respirators, information that seems to be missing from the OSHA materials. The state-plan volunteers ended up developing their own fact sheets that were apparently much better understood by the Spanish speaking laborers.

FEMA, meanwhile, seems to be primarily interested in using OSHA to monitor the air to ensure that none of the FEMA contractors get sued later on by workers who may have health problems. As I reported last month, Gulf Coast recovery contractors are pushing Senate bill 1761 that would "streamline" contractor-liability laws and push all related lawsuits into the federal court system.

I can't help but think that what we're seeing here at least partly a result of OSHA's deliberate refusal to talk to or work directly with workers or labor organizations over the past five years. AFL-CIO representatives have been repeatedly rebuffed by OSHA when they've offered to sit down and develop a Gulf recovery plan that makes sense considering the wide variety of hazards and the diversity of the workforce.

It's easy to lose touch with what workers' issues -- lack of training, equipment, resources, ability to understand English, or read in either language -- when you spend all your time and energy creating Alliances with employer associations whose representatives rarely rub elbows with people who actually get their hands dirty, can't understand English, aren't knowledgeable about the hazards or their rights, and can't afford to buy respirators or understand why they're needed.

There's a price to pay for such arrogance -- unfortunately, it's the day laborers who seem to be paying it.