OSHA Failed World Trade Center Rescue Workers, Says CongressmanSep 13, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP, LLP
World Trade Center emergency workers should have been given respirators to protect them from toxic dust, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) did not do enough to ensure that the first responders had access to such safety equipment. Those charges were leveled at OSHA yesterday by a member of congress during a hearing into the plight of emergency workers still suffering from exposure to the dust at Ground Zero following the World Trade Center terrorist attacks.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-NY, wanted to know why OSHA required emergency workers at the Pentagon to wear respirators, but did not enforce such rules at the World Trade Center. “At the Pentagon, OSHA enforced regulations requiring respirators, and no workers became sick,” said Nadler. “But OSHA failed to enforce its own regulations at the World Trade Center site, and now 70 percent of the first responders are sick and others have died.”
Patricia Clark, the OSHA regional administrator for New York, defended the agency’s actions, claiming that 131,000 respirators had been made available at Ground Zero. She also said that workers were encouraged to wear them by signs posted throughout the site. Clark said that OSHA chose not to cite individual workers for not wearing respirators because breathing zone samples did not indicate that toxins in the air were above thresholds OSHA deemed safe.
Nadler also complained that many World Trade Center rescue workers were lulled into a false sense of security over assurances the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made about the air quality around Ground Zero. On September 18, 2001 Christine Todd Whitman, then head of the EPA, was quoted in a press release: “Given the scope of the tragedy from last week, I am glad to reassure the people of New York and Washington, DC that their air is safe to breathe.” Such statements would have led many emergency workers to believe that respirators were not necessary. But since then, numerous studies have found that the dust around Ground Zero contained dangerous toxins such as asbestos and dioxin. “The Federal government failed them. It told them it was safe and it wasn’t,” Nadler said.
Philip Landrigan, who oversees a medical program at Mt. Sinai Hospital that works with sick Ground Zero first responders, told the committee that more than 21,000 rescue workers have sought treatment for respiratory ailments, gastrointestinal problems and mental health disorders in the years since the attacks. He also said that many rescue workers will face more problems, as toxins such as asbestos and dioxin continue to wreak havoc on their bodies. “The long-term consequences of these unique exposures are not yet known,” Landrigan testified. “Respiratory illness, psychological distress and financial devastation have become a new way of life for many.”