Rep. Carolyn Maloney took to the floor of the House of Representatives this morning to speak about the need to protect the health of cleanup workers responding to the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
Maloney, who represents parts of Manhattan and Queens in the House, is one of the leaders in Congress in fighting for the health of 9/11 workers and rescuers who lacked adequate safety equipment. She stands up for the 60,000 people who pitched in at Ground Zero, more than half of whom report serious respiratory and other health problems to this day.
Knowing OSHA’s poor track record at enforcing laws during times of crisis, like the 9/11 cleanup, Maloney saw the situation unfolding in the Gulf and spoke out about the need to protect the health of cleanup workers, as she put it, “before they lose it.” Maloney said on the floor of the House this morning:
The BP oil spill has caused a great emergency along our Gulf Coast. I hope as the response to it continues, we never forget the lessons of the Ground Zero workers. In the wake of 9/11, thousands of men and women labored tirelessly. Driven by a sense of urgent purpose, safety precautions were not taken, and assurances were given that proved to be false. The health of far too many of those who worked on that toxic pile, they suffered long-term health consequences.
Now in the Gulf, men and women are once again being exposed to a toxic sea of elements. After just 40-some days, there are already reports that workers have suffered exposure to the oil, and this cleanup will go on for years. The time to address the issue of the health of the cleanup workers is now, before they lose it.
Maloney knows that in the days, weeks, and months following 9/11, people in lower Manhattan were at risk of serious health issues due to poor air quality and asbestos from the fallen buildings. Despite pleas from local authorities, members of Congress, and the workers themselves, OSHA and EPA refused to require workers use respirators and other personal protection equipment to protect their health. Dr. Kirk Murphy at the Seminal pointed us to what happened, or didn’t, after 9/11:
With regard to the Ground Zero clean-up, the FOIA request uncovered a trail of email and other documents showing that the New York City Department of Health (NYCDOH), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the New York City Fire Department (NYCFD) all asked for OSHA enforcement during October 2001 when the immediate crisis had passed and extensive clean-up efforts were underway. Despite requests, OSHA did not enforce its regulations. It is estimated that as many as 60,000 workers and volunteers assisted in the clean-up. Though no one knows what portion failed to use proper PPE, anecdotal reports suggest that unsafe exposure was commonplace. Already, as many as 60 percent of all Ground Zero workers have shown some signs of respiratory illness and some have died due to their exposure.
OSHA needs to conduct a monitoring program independent of the recovery effort of BP and the Coast Guard. We need to know every data point of air monitoring in the region. We need to know the safety training for workers gives them the knowledge they need to recognize risks to their health. And we need to know workers have every available piece of personal protection equipment, including respirators, that they need to work safely with the cleanup of BP’s oil. If we don’t act now, and if OSHA continues to provide cover for BP, Gulf cleanup workers will suffer for the rest of the lives, and BP will wash its hands thanks to the complicity of OSHA.