[AIC National Collections Emergency News]

[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

Open letter to members of congress and senate from the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health

Below is an open letter from the National Council for Occupational Safety
and Health advocating for increased efforts to insure the health of disaster

Thanks to Jane Hutchins for the submission.


National Council for Occupational Safety and Health
57 School Street 2nd Floor
Concord NH 03301
Fax: 603-226-7168

September 30, 2005

Dear Members of Congress and Senate:

Thousands of disaster responders, workers, and volunteers in the Gulf Coast
areas affected by Hurricane Katrina remain inadequately protected against
exposure to environmental health hazards.

As individuals and organizations in the fields of public health and
occupational and environmental health and safety, disaster response,
recovery and cleanup, we are greatly concerned. Many of us have been
directly involved in 9/11 rescue, response, and recovery efforts. In the
wake of the terrible tragedy of Hurricane Katrina we urge that the lessons
learned in 9/11 response efforts not be ignored in Katrina response
operations. As we came to recognize in the aftermath of 9/11, there is a
difference between rescue and recovery. Now, however, a month after the
storm, we are now well into the recovery stage on the Gulf Coast, and
therefore EPA and OSHA should immediately commence enforcement of
life-saving workplace and environmental laws and regulations.

Failure to do so puts countless workers and residents at risk of contracting
preventable environmental and occupational diseases. This was our experience
in the aftermath of 9/11, when thousands of workers and residents were
unnecessarily exposed to toxic substances after being assured by EPA that
the air was safe to breathe. At the same time, workers were left unprotected
by OSHA, which declined to enforce its respiratory protection standard and
other regulations. The illnesses of thousands of New York workers and
residents today are in part the result of the failure of government agencies
to enforce environmental and occupational health regulations after 9/11.
Therefore, we are unalterably opposed to the legislative proposal of Senator
James Inhofe (ROK) to allow the Environmental Protection Agency to
temporarily suspend or relax its rules. Although it is not yet possible to
characterize with certainty the toxic nature of the flood waters that cover
Louisiana and Mississippi, what is known is of great concern.

The flood waters have been contaminated by 6.7 million gallons of petroleum
as a result of major spills from refineries and with another 1-2 million
gallons of gasoline from gas stations and 300,000 flooded cars. There have
been hundreds of smaller oil spills (396 as of Wednesday 9/14). The flood
waters contain elevated levels of sewage, bacteria, lead, mercury,
hexavalent chromium, arsenic, and pesticides. Some contaminants, such as
benzene, are presumed to be present in such large quantities that the EPA
has not considered it necessary to conduct sampling. The flood waters
impacted 31 hazardous waste sites and 446 industrial facilities that
reported handling highly dangerous chemicals before the storm.
Thousands of damaged buildings are likely to be contaminated with mold and
asbestos. Additionally, to our knowledge, no tests have been conducted for
dioxin B which is known to be present at levels of concern in southwest
Louisiana. As the flood waters recede, contaminants that remain have the
potential to become airborne when disturbed by natural causes (wind and
other storms) or by cleanup activities, creating an even greater
occupational and public health hazard.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental
Protection Agency Joint Taskforce published on September 17, 2005 an initial
Environmental Health Needs and Habitability Assessment. The report provides
an outline of the threats to the health of the public and of the workers who
will be involved in cleaning up the areas impacted by Katrina. These threats
are serious and are unprecedented in scope. The joint report provides a
valuable overview. However, it offers no details concerning what needs to be
done to protect workers and residents. That is why we believe that Congress
should act on the following recommendations. We must not repeat the errors
of 9/11 today in New Orleans. Response and recovery operations must proceed
expeditiously, but the health and safety of those engaged in such efforts
must be protected. We urge immediate action on the following steps:

1. Presume Contamination Until Proven Otherwise: Given the wide range and
toxic nature of contaminants to which workers, volunteers, and residents may
be exposed, it is imperative that work areas be presumed to be contaminated
and that appropriate precautionary measures be implemented until the work
environment is demonstrated to be safe.

2. Implement the National Response Plan's Worker and Community Environmental
Testing and Monitoring Provisions: The worker and community environmental
testing and monitoring provisions of the National Response Plan must be
followed closely. It provides for hazard identification, environmental
sampling, personal exposure monitoring, collecting and managing exposure
data, development of site-specific safety plans, immunization and
prophylaxis, and medical surveillance, medical monitoring and psychological

3. Enforce all OSHA and EPA Regulations: Environmental and occupational
health standards must be strictly enforced. We are distressed that OSHA has
defined its role in Katrina response, as in 9/11, as advisory rather than

4. Assess the Hazards: EPA should conduct comprehensive environmental
sampling to characterize the nature and extent of environmental hazards and
NIOSH and OSHA must conduct a comprehensive assessment of the hazards post
to recovery workers. Hazard assessment should include evaluation of
environmental hazards presented by chemical plants and refineries, hazardous
waste sites, in-place building materials, biological agents, and other
potential sources affected by the storm.
Environmental monitoring should be ongoing. Sampling results should be
accessible to the public in a timely manner. Toxic materials should be
catalogued, evaluated and tested, and any known or potential releases
contained. Failure to act will threaten returning residents and workers and
will increase long-term cleanup costs as toxic substances spread to larger

5. Train and Protect Clean Up Workers: All cleanup workers (public and
private sector, paid and unpaid) should receive the appropriate
OSHA-required training and equipment for protection against the hazards to
which they may be exposed. OSHA should specify the minimum training that
must be provided to workers engaged in clean-up and recovery.
Training may include Hazard Communication, Respiratory Protection, Personal
Protective Equipment, and Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response.
Protective equipment may include respirators and protective clothing and

6. Provide Appropriate Decontamination for Workers: To protect worker and
public health, emphasis must be placed on regular decontamination of workers
and volunteers and of their protective gear, tools, equipment, and vehicles.
Workers and volunteers must be trained in the importance of meticulous
personal hygiene in the presence of toxics and must be provided with
appropriate decontamination and sanitary facilities.

7. Provide Medical Surveillance: Provision must be made for early detection
and treatment of occupational, environmental, and psychological illnesses.
To ignore the medical needs of potentially exposed workers and residents is
asking them to be guinea pigs in a long-term experiment the consequences of
which remain unknown. All public and private sector rescue, response, and
cleanup workers, including volunteers, should be entered into a centralized
database to facilitate medical surveillance.

8. Protect Vulnerable Workers: Special consideration must be given to
protection of immigrant and temporary workers, who reportedly are being
recruited in large numbers. In 9/11 response efforts, immigrant and
temporary workers were the workers least likely to be provided with proper
training and respiratory protection, and were the workers least likely to
have medical insurance. As a result, they incurred high rates of illness
without having access to medical treatment.

9. Adopt Uniform Re-occupancy Standards: There must be one standard for
re-occupancy that applies uniformly to all communities and is sensitive to
the needs of vulnerable populations. EPA has indicated that it will permit
local authorities to determine re-occupancy criteria. To allow each locality
to implement its own standard for re-occupancy will result in a range of
standards, not all of which may be adequately protective of public health. A
cleanup of this magnitude and complexity has never been undertaken. While we
support proceeding with the cleanup and recovery with dispatch, protection
of the health of clean-up workers and of the public at large must be given
the highest priority.


SOURCE:  Occ-Env-Med-L Digest - 27 Sep 2005 to 28 Sep 2005 (#2005-262) The
National Council on Occupational Safety and Health

[Subject index] [Index for current month] [AIC National Collections Emergency News]