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LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman
Armand E. Sabitoni

“After the terrorists’ attack on the World Trade Center, the anthrax attack at postal facilities in New Jersey and Washington, DC, and, now, nature’s assault on the Gulf Coast,” says LIUNA General Secretary Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni, “strength and perseverance in disaster recovery is becoming a hallmark of Construction Craft Laborers. When these tragedies struck, our members answered the call. They, along with our signatory employers, are earning well-deserved respect as capable, committed responders.”

In the urgency of the 2001 World Trade Center disaster, some responders were not so well prepared as Laborers. Not appreciating the dangers in the air, some did not wear proper respiratory protection, and, today, suffer serious consequences. “Though Laborers generally protected themselves well at the WTC,” says LHSFNA Research Division Director Dr. Jim Melius, “we learned a lot from that experience. We know, now, that in the chaos, confusion and general lack of regulatory authority in such situations, Laborers have to rely on themselves and their training to ensure protection.”

Laborers are broadly trained to handle the health and safety concerns of virtually all construction worksites. Many also have more specialized training in asbestos or hazardous waste handling. The necessary workforce training is led by the Laborers-AGC Education and Training Fund – based in Pomfret Center, Connecticut – and conducted through more than 70 local training centers nationwide. Much of the health and safety training content is developed by the LHSFNA.

Realizing that most Gulf Coast Laborers needed only a quick reminder about necessary health and safety precautions, the LHSFNA jumped into the fray by revising a number of its standard health alerts and writing a few new ones to address the specifics of hurricane disaster response. Dubbed “Katrina Kards,” a total of 22 special alerts were prepared, printed and shipped to the affected region by September 14, just as organized relief operations were beginning to shift into higher gear.

Meanwhile, soon after the storm, the Laborers-AGC mobilized to bolster on-site training capacity in the area. The five-member training staff of the South Central Laborers Training Fund in Livonia was doubled with instructors who flew in from California, West Virginia, New Jersey, Nevada and New York. In addition, mobile training units were brought in from California and Iowa to open classes at the LIUNA Locals in Baton Rouge and Oakdale, Louisiana (in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita).

“Laborers-AGC has responded hands down,” says Tim Johnson, the Apprenticeship Coordinator at the Livonia center. “It has done an awesome job.”

More than 220 workers were trained in asbestos removal and hazardous waste handling during the first eight weeks after the storm. Many of these have moved on to clean-up worksites with LIUNA signatory employers.

Most of the early training has been financed under grants from the Louisiana Department of Labor and, at the national level, from NIEHS that predate the hurricane. The focus is on training local people. The grants pay for asbestos licensing, travel, a physical examination and drug testing. Because many local workers are displaced, some traveled as far as 160 miles round-trip to participate in the classes.

Additional help, however, is on the way. OSHA announced, in late October, its award of $750,000 to Laborers-AGC to sustain and further develop training programs to aid clean-up and reconstruction efforts. According to Laborers-AGC Executive Director John J. LeConche, “Training will include a variety of construction, environmental remediation, emergency response and health and safety courses, depending on which skills are needed for available jobs.” This training is expected to last for at least four months. Later, as the clean-up effort is underway, the focus of training will shift to construction skills such as concrete placement, mason tending and pipelaying.

As necessary, the Laborers-AGC will contract with the LHSFNA to assess work hazards, review health and safety elements of the curricula and monitor presentations to evaluate effectiveness. The LHSFNA also may provide some health and safety instruction and will provide oversight of medical professionals who conduct medical screening for participants in hazardous waste and asbestos remediation training. Also, the Fund can provide debriefing sessions for workers who need help with post-traumatic stress disorder. LHSFNA Occupational Health Nurse Peggy Bolz (see centerfold story) has already made one trip to Livonia.

The grant also will cover some transportation expenses for commuting trainees and will provide hard hats and work boots to new Construction Craft Laborers.

“We’re proud of the response of LIUNA members, our local and regional leaders, our training and health and safety staff and our signatory contractors,” says Sabitoni. “Everyone continues to do their part to ease suffering and restore lives for the people of the Gulf Coast. It’s been an outstanding effort, all the way around.”

[Steve Clark]