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Disaster Site Worker Safety

Protecting Disaster Site and Recovery Workers.

Contractors are hiring immigrant workers right here in Houston and taking them to New Orleans to do cleanup. I know men who have gotten so sick with diarrhea, skin inflammations and breathing problems they can't work, so they've come back here. The contractors just hire more.
Latin American Organization for Immigrant Rights in Houston.

There are exceptional challenges to the safety and health of workers who are (and will be) performing recovery work in the aftermath of the Gulf Coast hurricanes, (and to the environment if work is not performed to explicit cleanup standards). The variety of potential hazards are staggering: electrocution from power lines and recovery equipment, dangers using heavy equipment and chainsaws in an unstable work environs, carbon monoxide poisoning from portable generators and gasoline-powered tools and equipment, an extraordinary range of biological hazards from animal vector to water pollution. Other priorities for safety include insect controls, waste disposal, bloodborne precautions and hygiene.

But it is not clear how well protected workers are from the many hazards associated with work like clearing rotten food from warehouses and freezers, demolition, debris removal, handling flood related wastes, restoring utilities, or heavy equipment operation.

FEMA activated the worker safety and health provisions (annex document) of the National Response Plan (NRP). The annex describes actions needed to ensure that threats to safety and health are recognized, evaluated and controlled consistently so that responders are properly protected during incident management operations. The activation of the Worker Safety and Health Annex gives the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) the responsibility to coordinate a comprehensive response involving federal, state and local agencies and private sector organizations to ensure the safety and health needs of responders are met.

There is confusion, however, as to whether OSHA will act as advisory ”coordinator” or as an enforcement agency. OSHA personnel in the Gulf region have reported that they are not clear which role they must perform, (and the language in the National Response Plan is not explicit).

Positive Program for Worker Safety

Step 1: Congress should direct OSHA to immediately establish a mandatorycomprehensive safety and health plan that will function as the overall health and safety plan for all clean-up and recovery work. This plan should address and provide for:

  • Assign qualified personnel for site safety.
  • Assure safety personnel have the authority to operate similar to the safety officer provision under Incident Command (right to intervene—even halt unsafe operations).
  • Detail hazards and risks associated with each operation conducted.
  • Confirm that personnel are adequately trained to perform jobs.
  • Confirm that personnel have received safety and health training and instructions to perform jobs safely.
  • Confirm that personnel have appropriate protective clothing and equipment to mitigate existing hazards.
  • Establish safe work practices for site operations.
  • Conduct air monitoring, personnel monitoring, and environmental sampling and medical surveillance.
  • Site control measures.
  • Establish decontamination procedures.
  • Incorporate CDC recommendations regarding vaccination.
  • Step 2: The Department of Labor OSHA must exercise its full inspection and enforcement authority to ensure that safety and health requirements are followed.

    Step 3: A solution to growing fears about exploitation of undocumented and immigrant and other vulnerable workers is for Congress to mandate that FEMA require all government cleanup and recovery awards contain explicit provisions that bind contractors to follow comprehensive site safety plan and develop site safety plans specific to hazards of their operations. Plans to include informing and training workers. Violations of site safety rules can then lead to cancellation of awards and penalties (including, in egregious situations, criminal penalties.)

    Disaster Site Worker Training

    Two training programs are referenced in the National Response plan. A basic Construction Safety Training that addresses key OSHA rules and rights, and several focal construction hazards. A second program, Disaster Site Worker Course, deals with the safety and health hazards of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive agents that maybe encountered at any disaster site. It highlights the importance of respiratory and other personal protective equipment, of proper decontamination procedures; it explains safety practices imbedded in the Incident Command System/NIMS and alerts workers to traumatic incident stress that can result when working in disaster conditions. These programs should be mandatory for all workers. (Check NIEHS WETP (Worker Education and Training Program) program at

    CDC/NOSH has already developed Guidance for Supervisors at Disaster Rescue Sites which serves to address many issues. CDC has provided multiple sets of guidelines, at

    Fact sheets on issues and hazards relating to recovery and cleanup efforts are available as well on the OSHA's Natural Disaster Recovery page: In addition, previously published reports regarding health conditions after hurricanes have been added to the MMWR website (

    The National Library of Medicine has up-and-running a web site on toxic chemical and environmental health information resources. Links to TOXMAP identify and map locations of facilities that used or transported significant levels of toxic chemicals. Maps are included for the Katrina-affected states as well as for New Orleans, Biloxi, and Gulfport.

    Adapted from the RI Committee on Occupational Safety & Health