Features, Health and Safety, Municipal Government, New York

Sixteen Years After 9/11, Worker-Safety Issues Remain

September 14, 2017

By Steve Wishnia

Neal Tepel and Gary LaBarbera on AM970 LaborPress Radio

New York, N.Y.—After the memorials were over, Sept. 12 was a day to look at the aftereffects of 9/11.

LaborPress and AM970 The Answer’s Post 9-11 Forum, at the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators’ offices a few blocks south of the World Trade Center site, focused on two issues: The medical issues affecting the people who survived the attacks and worked on the cleanup, and job safety in the construction industry, which has boomed in the 15 years since then.The 9/11 cleanup was “by no means a case study in how to work safely,” said Charlene Obernauer, executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. Because it was such an extreme emergency, people worked in and around the still-smoking ruins without regard for their own safety. They weren’t given respirators until more than a week after the attack, and when they finally got them, many took the respirators off to do certain tasks, and they were not told that the filters had to be replaced regularly.

The air around the site contained more than 70 carcinogens. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health estimates that more than 400,000 people were exposed, the about 90,000 “responders” who responded to the attack or worked on the cleanup, and the rest the “survivors,” who lived, worked, or went to school in Lower Manhattan, said Liam Lynch of NYCOSH, a program coordinator for the World Trade Center Health Program.

The most common ailments, said Dr. Leigh Wilson of the Queens World Trade Center Health Center, are “aerodigestive” disorders, from asthma to lung cancer to chronic gastroesophageal reflux disease, better known as acid reflux.

The landmark Zadroga Act of 2011 established the World Trade Center Health Program. It provides medical care, mental-health-care, and social services for responders with health conditions related to the attacks, and medical care for survivors with similar conditions. It also established the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which compensates responders or survivors who became physically ill after being exposed.

Many people are reluctant to sign up, panelists said, because they feel healthy, they think the program is limited to responders, or they don’t want to use resources that could go to someone who needs them more. But many exposure-related diseases take a long time to develop.

“Mesothelioma hasn’t begun yet,” said Matthew Baione of the Pitta & Baione law firm. “Cancer is still getting there.” He also warned that people who sign up for the health program have to apply separately for the Victim Compensation Fund within two years from the date a condition is certified.

The victim fund does not cover mental-health treatment. “The one thing that people don’t want to speak about is mental-health issues,” said Thomas Hart, president of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 94. Members who worked in the twin towers, he added, “saw things that nobody should have to see,” such as watching “bodies pop on the terrazzo” when people jumped out of high windows to escape the fire.

At the memorial reading of the names the day before, 200 people who died in the last year had been added, said Lynch. “Sixteen years later, this has not ended,” said Christopher Baione of Pitta & Baione.

The discussion also covered overall construction safety. Construction is “the most dangerous industry in New York City and has been for some time,” said Obernauer.

The majority of injuries and deaths, said Hart, “aren’t coming out of the union sector.” That’s why Local 94 is backing Intro 1447, a bill pending in the City Council that would require construction workers on projects more than three stories tall to have 59 hours of “site safety training.” “We represent all workers, not just union workers,” he said. Nonunion contractors’ trade groups have opposed the bill on the grounds that it would favor unions, whose members are much more likely to have had that level of training.

Union jobsites are safer, said lawyer Howard Raphaelson, because there are “always toolbox meetings, daily logs, weekly logs,” while on nonunion sites, “we don’t get any records.” In one case he handled, an experienced worker rebuilding the roof on a movie theater was killed when he fell through, a 40-foot drop, and “a simple demolition plan” had never been done.

Carlo Scissura of the Building Congress, an association of mostly union contractors and developers, agreed that union sites were safer, but said he was “not a fan” of enforcing safety through additional legislation.

There are three prongs to safety, said Obernauer: Enforcing current regulations, training, and reporting unsafe conditions. But the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, she added, has fewer inspectors in New York State than it did five years ago. Then, it would have taken 111 years to inspect every worksite in the state; now, it would take 138 years.

“It does seem pretty basic, but we know what works,” she said.

September 14, 2017

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