Hurricane Sandy’s devastation and its impact on New York City have conjured analogies to 9/11 — the sudden and random loss of life caused by forces beyond our immediate control and understanding, the unifying of a city better known for its citizens’ pursuit of their individual dreams, and the contemplation of a “new normal” way of life. But let’s not let the analogy extend to once again putting recovery workers in harm’s way more than is absolutely necessary.
Pressure is being applied to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to cut corners on safety for workers engaged in Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has criticized OSHA for “trying to come in and enforce regulations on employers who are just trying to get things done.” Some argue that a softer hand from OSHA is called for, focusing the agency’s efforts instead on encouraging best practices, fostering interagency cooperation and generally making workplace safety part of the background noise of recovery efforts. Now is not the time, they say, to put enforcement of safety regulations above the imperative to get us back to where we were before Sandy hit.
We’ve seen this movie before, and it doesn’t end well.
Recovering from and cleaning up after Sandy is very dangerous work. Workers have to get an electric grid back online that is both deep underground and way up in the air, in environments that are dark, wet and unstable. They have to clear debris and drain contaminated floodwater from homes, streets, tunnels, parks and whole neighborhoods. They have to provide security, and organize and distribute relief to thousands of displaced and homeless residents.
Here’s how OSHA, which oversees workplace safety in the private sector in New York (public sector workers are overseen by the state Department of Labor), summarizes the risks our Sandy recovery workers face on a daily basis:
“Illness from exposure to contaminated water or food, exposure to the elements and heat stress, downed electrical wires, carbon monoxide and electrical hazards from portable generators, fall and “struck-by” hazards from tree trimming or working at heights, being caught in unprotected excavations or confined spaces, burns, lacerations, musculoskeletal injuries, being struck by traffic or heavy equipment, and drowning from being caught in moving water or while removing water from flooded structures.”
Sept. 11 recovery work was also dangerous. Thousands of workers (and volunteers) labored on and around “the pile,” as the remains of the World Trade Center at Ground Zero were known, and in the rest of lower Manhattan, for months after the mission switched from rescue to recovery. The atmosphere was toxic, with over a million tons of dust containing every chemical and compound that made up every item in the World Trade Center having been pulverized and spewed into the air.
The government and private sector employers failed miserably to protect these men and women. Not only did various government agencies, including OSHA, affirmatively misrepresent air safety information for those working and living in lower Manhattan, but OSHA consciously decided not to issue citations for failure to wear respirators, for fear that it would slow down the recovery effort. Many workers developed devastating respiratory illnesses and cancers — at least 70 percent became sick after working on the pile. It took the Zadroga Act, signed into law nearly 10 years after 9/11, for the government to effectively acknowledge its failures and establish a mechanism for offering compensation to injured workers and others.
The drive to get things done, to cut red tape and push aside useless bureaucracy, is admirable, and essential; even more so, it is quintessentially American. We’re at our best trying to get big things done, quickly. And getting people back into their homes, kids back into schools, patients back into healthcare facilities and our infrastructure back in order are big, important things that need to get done quickly. But doing so cannot come at the expense of our recovery workers’ health and safety. Not again.
OSHA and every other federal and state agency involved in recovering from Hurricane Sandy need to enforce our workplace safety rules vigorously for those men and women doing the dirty and dangerous job of getting New York back in order.
Rory Lancman is New York State Assemblyman for the 25th District in eastern Queens and chairman of the Subcommittee on Workplace Safety.