Addressing the question of “Why Weren’t 9/11 Recovery Workers Protected at the World Trade Center,” Dr. Jim Melius, Research Director at the LHSFNA and Administrator of the New York State Laborers’ Health and Safety Trust Fund, testified before the Education and Labor Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives on September 12.

His almost seven-minute presentation can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube

Melius – who also chairs the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring Steering Committee which oversees the government-funded program to monitor illness in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, disaster and its clean-up – began by describing the initial difficulties in establishing a site safety program – including provision of personal protective equipment and safety training – for recovery workers, including more than 4000 Laborers who participated at one time or another. “OSHA played an important role,” he said, “but it was always a consultative role…thus, compliance varied quite a lot and there was very little coordination of what the different [safety efforts] were doing.”

In a decision immediately after the catastrophe, OSHA announced that, due to the emergency nature of the situation, it was suspending enforcement of its normal workplace safety standards. Despite union calls for enforcement, state safety officials followed OSHA’s lead. Earlier this summer, the agency’s decision drew sharp criticism as Congress began an investigation into the way the recovery effort was handled. More than 60 percent of the 60,000 workers who participated in the rescue and recovery operations have suffered respiratory illness.

Melius acknowledged the great success in limiting injuries among recovery workers, but went on to describe the tens of thousands of workers who sustained pulmonary illness, most of it not the result of exposure in the immediate aftermath of the emergency but, rather, due to exposure during the many months of the recovery endeavor. Noting that he was part of a team at NIOSH that issued an alert against alkaline or cement dust more than 25 years ago, Melius said, “It should not have been a surprise to anybody that there was the possibility of respiratory disease from this exposure.”

Speaking of the overall safety management at Ground Zero, he summarized, “We failed to provide the proper protection…It was not only just the use of respirators. It was a comprehensive approach to safety at the site that included enforcement. I don’t think you can protect people in those circumstances without a strong enforcement effort. There are too many groups involved.”

Melius drew a distinction between work in the immediate aftermath of the crisis and that performed over the long course of the recovery phase. For the former, he stressed that preplanning, including the stockpiling of necessary protective equipment is vital, but for the latter, he said, it is quite possible to pause the operation, only to resume after an effective, site-specific safety program is in place. He also noted the importance of safety training.

In conclusion, he addressed recommendations for moving forward, saying, ”We need to make sure that we have the kind of incident safety management plan that [addresses] the needs for coordination and preplanning, but we also need a very strong OSHA involvement in these incidents that includes the ability to comprehensively assess hazards at the site, to enforce the appropriate standards of protection for people and [ensures] that no work will go forward without an OSHA certification that people are being properly protected in that work…We also need a comprehensive medical follow-up program for people who are involved in these incidents.”

[Steve Clark]