Hurricane Sandy Cleanup Workers Report Wide Range of Safety and Health Hazards

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By Stephen Lee

Cleanup workers in the flood zone left by Hurricane Sandy are continuing to encounter a broad range of safety and health hazards, some of which already have begun to afflict workers, according to safety advocates on the scene.

For example, some day laborers from Queens in New York have complained of nausea, itchy throats, and severe coughs after beginning cleanup work on Long Island, Luzdary Giraldo, an outreach coordinator at the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, told BNA Nov. 21.

The specific causes of the illnesses have not yet been identified. Joel Shufro, NYCOSH's executive director, said workers in the flood zone are being exposed routinely to mold, asbestos, lead paint, and biological contamination.

Moreover, many workers are being rushed into duty without the most basic training or safety equipment, even as they perform dangerous tasks such as cutting trees, cleaning up debris from streets, and removing sheetrock from private homes, some of which are structurally unsound, Giraldo said.

Concern Over Lack of Training
“Construction and demolition is extremely dangerous work, some of the most dangerous work in the country,” Keith Wrightson, safety and health coordinator at Public Citizen, told BNA Nov. 26. “And if people aren't told that they should wear gloves and not rub their eyes, then they're spreading disease and infection, and it could easily run rampant. Then you're bringing it home to your family and kids. Who knows what's in the water?”

Dave Heidorn, manager of government affairs and policy with the American Society of Safety Engineers, said he has heard reports of workers being given paper face masks, rather than ones approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, “which makes those who know nervous.”

Other workers need waterproof boots, eye protection, and sturdy leather gloves, Heidorn said.

'It's Like the Wild West'
To make matters worse, Shufro said, government safety agencies, including the Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration and New York's state OSHA, have been unable to police the entire affected area because of its sheer size.

“As far as I know, it's like the Wild West,” he told BNA Nov. 21. “I know that OSHA is doing its best, but we're talking about a coastline of about 1,000 miles and 16 states that were affected, and they just are overwhelmed. Even if they were doing a perfect job, they couldn't do it with the resources that they have.”

Giraldo said the issue is complicated by the fact that many of the cleanup workers are undocumented immigrants, hired off the streets as early as 5:30 a.m. and driven to the flood zone, where they often work as late as 1:00 a.m. for $100 a day.

“Even if they have gotten hurt, they will not talk, because this is one of the few opportunities, like 9/11, when they are able to work without documentation,” Giraldo said.

OSHA Explains Its Role
OSHA's activities in response to the storm fall into four broad categories: technical assistance, outreach, coordination and liaison, and training, Denise Matthews of OSHA's Office of Emergency Management and Preparedness told the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health Nov. 15.

In the first week after the storm made landfall, OSHA had provided safety briefings to crews in power restoration and tree trimming staging areas and reached out to workers through existing relationships with community- and faith-based organizations to educate workers, especially immigrants and those with limited English, Matthews said.

During the second week, OSHA began focusing on workers involved in debris clearance and removal, with a special emphasis on coastal areas affected by the flooding. The agency also continued its technical assistance role in coastal areas, continued to reach out to workers, donated some protective equipment to day laborers, and continued staffing its command and coordination centers, Matthews said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency did not respond to questions about its role in protecting workers' safety and health.

Eric Frumin, safety and health director with Change to Win, called on FEMA, OSHA, and the New York and New Jersey state OSHAs to mount a strong response, making clear to contractors and subcontractors that workers must be protected, just as OSHA did during its widely praised response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

“I will never forget the awe with which OSHA's directions on preventing heat illness in the Gulf were greeted by temporary labor contractors in Louisiana,” Frumin told BNA Nov. 15. “They were not used to treating poor, unskilled workers of color with that kind of deference.”

Unanticipated Hazards
Beyond basic construction, electrical, and respiratory hazards, some workers are encountering threats to their health and safety that few could have anticipated, Shufro said.

For example, he said, some housing authority workers in New York City have faced violence from angry residents of buildings whose power still has not been restored.

Similarly, Wrightson said, insurance adjusters who venture into structurally unsound buildings are taking a significant risk.

But both Shufro and Giraldo were both quick to note that some employers have taken steps to protect workers. For example, Giraldo said she knew of a group of workers who were hired by a subcontractor to help clean the Millennium Hotel in midtown Manhattan and were provided with complete protective masks and gloves and paid $25 an hour.

OSHA Asks Associations for Help
Meanwhile, OSHA has reached out to three of the nation's biggest professional safety associations for help in protecting workers involved in the cleanup effort.

On Nov. 9, OSHA Administrator David Michaels asked the ASSE, the American Industrial Hygiene Association, and the National Safety Council to reach out to companies for donations of personal protective equipment and other supplies, which then will be relayed to nonprofit aid organizations.

ASSE has begun responding to Michaels' request, identifying nonprofits in the affected areas, Heidorn told BNA Nov. 20.

ASSE's New York City chapter will hold a fund-raiser Nov. 29 to raise money to buy protective equipment.

Associations' Role Pondered
Similarly, AIHA has shipped protective equipment to its local section at New York's Hunter College receiving station, which then is distributed to local organizations, AIHA spokeswoman Kathryn Grandstaff told BNA Nov. 26.

The association also has donated $10,000 to the American Red Cross for the relief effort, according to Grandstaff.

Going forward, professional associations' role in supporting OSHA may need to be formalized, so that the relationships are in place when disasters occur, Heidorn said.

“Every prediction says these storms will be a greater part of our reality,” Heidorn said. “It certainly feels like we are building a model with OSHA to get our members' considerable knowledge and goodwill to those who need it.”

But OSHA's leadership in coordinating the effort to protect workers still will be critical, Heidorn said.

“David Michaels making personal calls to us and the others means a lot,” Heidorn said. “It's impressive. We're just the link that helps pull it all together.”

By Stephen Lee

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