Contending that government inaction contributed to the health problems of those who responded to the collapse of the World Trade Center, an advocacy group is calling for substantial changes in the way the government handles disasters.
A report by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) blasts the EPA for not designating the area around Ground Zero as a hazardous waste site and OSHA for not requiring hazardous waste training for workers doing cleanup in the area.
Government officials ignored danger
The report,Are We Prepared for the Next 9/11? highlights decisions made by federal, state and city agencies and officials in the weeks and months after 9/11 and says the desire of government officials to “create the appearance of a return to normalcy as rapidly as possible” caused many to ignore or minimize the danger to those working at the site.
“The almost 3,000 people who tragically lost their lives in the 2001 World Trade Center attacks were not the only victims. The emergency response to the WTC attacks and their aftermath produced widespread and persistent adverse health effects among responders, cleanup workers, volunteers, and area workers, residents and students.”
OSHA implemented zero enforcement policy
OSHA is criticized for implementing "a zero enforcement policy which ultimately fostered rapid removal of debris rather than protection of worker health."
NYCOSH also accuses real estate and financial interests of pressuring New York City's mayor to quickly reopen lower Manhattan - regardless of health and safety concerns.
“As a result, some 400,000 people may have been exposed to contaminants, according to a 2007 mayoral taskforce, and many now suffer the consequences. Much of this could have been avoided.”
What should change
The report offers recommendations on how government agencies can improve their response to disasters:
- Do no additional harm: Rescue operations should not expose workers and volunteers to unnecessary risks.
- The federal government should take clear responsibility for public health during disaster response.
- Training should be provided not only to traditional first responders but also day laborers, volunteers and other non-traditional participants.
- Since immigrant workers have been exploited in the responses to many disasters, including 9/11, the federal government must protect these workers' rights to legal wages and a safe and healthy workplace.
- Uniform re-occupancy standards, based on science, not politics, should be established to protect the public health.
- OSHA and EPA should enforce applicable standards and, where no standards apply, ensure the use of safest work practices and the most protective exposure limits
"For all of us in the public and private sectors who have a role in preventing injuries, illnesses and deaths associated with disasters on an immense scale, the recommendations in the NYCOSH report are pertinent to issues that are vital for us to consider," Dr. John Howard, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), writes in his preface to the report.
"Mistakes were made"
U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, whose district includes lower Manhattan, said "We know now that many mistakes were made in the days and weeks following 9-11 that exposed thousands of New Yorkers and responders from around the country to toxins from the collapse of the WTC buildings.... Many lost their lives and many more are still suffering today. We must all work together to make certain the mistakes made after 9-11 are never repeated, no matter the scale of the disaster or when it comes."
Click here to read Are We Prepared for the Next 9/11?