Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

Congressman: OSHA's 9/11 Response Endangered Workers
By James L Nash, Occupational Hazards, September 30, 2002

In the face of mounting evidence of long-term illness among those who did rescue and recovery work at the former World Trade Center (WTC), the congressman representing Lower Manhattan has criticized the response of OSHA and EPA to last year's terrorist attacks.

In a June 3 letter to OSHA Administrator John Henshaw, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-NY, requested detailed information explaining why OSHA suspended its enforcement authority at the WTC disaster site. Henshaw's Aug. 9 reply appears not to have resolved the issue. In addition, the OSHA administrator's letter provoked new charges of EPA duplicity from Nadler's office. Henshaw explained that "the urgency of the task" at the WTC "did not allow time to invoke OSHA's ordinary enforcement procedures to assure the safety of these workers."

OSHA officials have defended the decision not to enforce safety and health rules by noting that contested citations can take years to settle, whereas the partnership agreements used at Ground Zero led to immediate resolutions of safety issues. They also point to the low injury rate at the site as proof the emphasis on consultation and compliance assistance worked.

"I am sure there is no suggestion on your part," Henshaw wrote in his reply to Nadler, "that the decision to place an emphasis on assistance somehow added to the danger those heroic workers encountered."

That is precisely what Nadler is suggesting, according to spokesperson Eric Schmeltzer. "The Congressman's contention is that there should have been enforcement," Schmeltzer explained. "He believes the suspension of OSHA enforcement authority in favor of the contractors did put America's heroes in unnecessary danger."

Schmeltzer emphasized that Nadler was placing no blame on the contractors, as they can only operate with the information given them by the government. Recent studies by Johns Hopkins University's School of Public Health, the Center for Disease Control and other institutions have documented persistent respiratory symptoms among rescue and recovery workers, many of whom did not use proper respiratory equipment while working at Ground Zero.

Jonathan Bennett, public affairs director at the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health said his organization was troubled by a number of features of Henshaw's response to Nadler. "The Nadler letter asks for some very specific information, to document and explain why OSHA suspended its enforcement authority," Bennett said. "Henshaw didn't answer the question - what he wrote was a bunch of generalities."

Nadler has been even more critical of EPA's reaction to the terrorist attacks, specifically statements that the air in Lower Manhattan was safe and EPA's refusal to take charge of cleaning up the interior of Lower Manhattan buildings contaminated with a variety of contaminants.

EPA has defended its decision by arguing that it had no legal responsibility to clean up interior environments because the National Contingency Plan (NCP) was not in effect. In his letter, Henshaw defended OSHA's consultation role at the WTC be referring to OSHA's membership in the NCP. "OSHA is now saying NCP is in effect, a point Rep. Nadler has been contending all along in the face of EPA denials," said Schmeltzer.

EPA declined to respond to numerous requests for comment on whether NCP was in effect.

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