Labor and business representatives are split on the role the Occupational
Safety and Health Administration should take in enforcing regulations during the
Hurricane Sandy cleanup effort.
The division arises over the question of whether OSHA should provide a
muscular response to a highly hazardous environment, or whether it should play
an advisory and support role while cleanup workers in hard-hit communities in
New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut attend to imminent concerns.
Peg Seminario, safety and health director with the AFL-CIO, said OSHA should
make it clear what it expects of employers involved in the cleanup and that
companies not adequately protecting workers will face serious consequences.
However, employer representatives told BNA the agency should modify its
enforcement approach and use enforcement discretion as companies respond to
In an Oct. 30 bulletin, OSHA said recovery workers are likely to encounter
electrical, demolition, and structural hazards and may be exposed to
contaminated water and food from flooding throughout the affected area,
especially lower Manhattan and coastal New Jersey.
The New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, a labor group,
said Nov. 5 it was especially concerned about cleanup of areas where overflows
containing both stormwater and sewage is likely, such as the Gowanus Canal and
Newtown Creek Superfund site, both in Brooklyn, because of the health threats
posed by raw sewage and contaminants in the stormwater.
Only workers with special training should participate in the cleanup of
Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek, said Joel Shufro, NYCOSH's executive
Other workers will face dangers as they trim trees, repair natural gas leaks,
shore up falling structures, use cranes and aerial lifts, and drive through
flooded streets, according to OSHA.
To Seminario, “the last thing we need coming from this devastation is more
devastation, more lives lost. That has to be first and foremost in terms of
protecting the safety and health of workers. And it would be a tragedy to repeat
some of the same mistakes that we saw at the World Trade Center, where workers
were not provided with the kind of protection that was needed.”
Seminario was referring to the Bush administration's handling of the Sept.
11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Many safety advocates say first responders in the
recovery effort were not adequately protected from cancer-causing dusts and
toxins (42 OSHR 816, 9/13/12).
“Definitely [OSHA] needs to be directly involved, clearly involved,”
Seminario said. “They have to be very clear about what is needed to protect
workers, that the expectations are there, and that employers will be taking
those steps that are needed. If they don't, there will be consequences.”
Others have called for OSHA to modify its tough enforcement approach, at
least in the immediate aftermath of the storm.
“OSHA will be most helpful in this moment if they look upon their role as
helping people understand what's required and giving them clear direction,
rather than trying to come in and enforce regulations on employers who are just
trying to get things done,” Marc Freedman, executive director of labor law
policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told BNA Nov. 1.
“You have to take a balanced approach to be there to encourage the use of
personal protective equipment, provide training,” a safety association
representative who declined to be identified told BNA Nov. 2.
“Hitting people over the head with citations is pretty unrealistic and
counterproductive, except in the most outrageous cases,” the association
representative said. “A key must be building relationships with other agencies
more directly involved in responding, helping out with their knowledge of risks
and protections. The greater challenge may be long-term, in finding a way to
oversee the contractors who show up en masse with unskilled workers who often
can't speak English in the aftermath.”
President Obama may have stoked the debate Oct. 30, when in a speech
at the American Red Cross headquarters he ordered federal agencies to act
Obama said his instructions have been, “Do not figure out why we can't do
something. I want you to figure out how we do something. I want you to cut
through red tape. I want you to cut through bureaucracy. There's no excuse for
inaction at this point. I want every agency to lean forward and to make sure
that we are getting the resources where they're needed as quickly as
A White House aide told BNA Nov. 4 that the president “was making clear that
agencies should identify and remove any barriers that could slow the deployment
of vital resources.”
OSHA did not respond to questions about how specifically the agency will
respond to the hurricane, although the agency issued a notice Nov. 1 saying its
field staffers were in the affected region, providing assistance and support to
Seminario rejected the notion that Obama intended for OSHA to lower its
“He was not talking about putting people in harm's way,” Seminario told BNA
Nov. 2. “Yes, [OSHA] has to be thoughtful and deliberate, but they also have to
be clear about what [employers'] obligations are.”
Eric Frumin, health and safety director for Change to Win, pointed to the
Obama administration's response to the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon cleanup in the
Gulf of Mexico as a model of how OSHA can protect workers even in
In that instance, labor leaders broadly praised OSHA for consistently
monitoring the air for toxins, enforcing the use of respirators, and offering a
strong physical presence along the shore (41 OSHR 464, 5/26/11).
“If I thought that this administration's approach to protecting workers was
the same as the Bush administration's after 9/11, I would worry,” Frumin said
Oct. 31. “But we have the counter example of the BP situation to demonstrate
that oversight is possible.”
Frumin noted that the construction, utility, and transportation workers who
will have been pressed into duty in the Hurricane Sandy cleanup face serious
dangers even under ordinary circumstances.
Employers involved in the hurricane recovery effort should take measures
including evaluating hazards, monitoring task-specific hazard exposures, using
engineering or work practice controls, providing personal protective equipment,
ensuring proper hygiene, and seeing that portable generators and other equipment
is used properly and precautions are taken traffic work zones, OSHA said Oct.
“Recovery work should not put you in the recovery room,” Marthe Kent, OSHA's
New England regional administrator, said in a Oct. 30 statement. “Storm recovery
work involves a wide range of safety and health hazards, which can be minimized
by knowledge, safe work practices, and personal protective equipment. OSHA wants
to make certain that no casualties result from cleanup operations.”
State and local government employees in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut
all receive OSHA protection under special public sector-only state plans.
Government workers in non-state plan states are not covered by OSHA.
Private-sector workers in all three states are covered by federal OSHA.
Frumin also expressed concern that salvage and cleanup workers may be abused
by their employers because many of them are likely to be low-paid, may not speak
English, and may not understand their rights.
“I fear that we're going to go down that road again, because there's a wide
open, winner-take-all, Darwinian approach to oversight of that workforce,”
Frumin told BNA Oct. 31. “We could see people badly abused. I can't imagine what
OSHA's ability to protect them will be, but hopefully the powers that be who are
on the one hand complimenting the dedication of the workers and utilities will
think that the cleanup workers will deserve the same kind of action.”
Vulnerable workers deserve robust protection, “whether they were born and
brought up in Queens or whether they arrived in Queens from Mexico two weeks
ago,” Frumin said.
“Previous emergency events such as [the] World Trade Center, Hurricane
Katrina and Deepwater Horizon have demonstrated that there are significant gaps
in responding to emergency worker and volunteer health and safety needs,
resulting in tens of thousands of rescue and clean up workers becoming ill,”
said John Durso, president of the Long Island Federation of Labor, in a Nov. 5
By Stephen Lee
A transcript of President Obama's Oct. 30 remarks is available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/10/30/remarks-president-american-red-cross.