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Health and safety concerns for Hurricane Sandy clean-up workers

Much of the Northeast is still recovering from Hurricane Sandy, which bombarded the East Coast with heavy rain, snow and wind. But as recovery continues, there are some important health and safety concerns for clean-up workers and the public at large.  

The New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) has produced a fact sheet: CAUTION: HURRICANE SANDY CLEAN UP CAN BE HAZARDOUS! with information on how to avoid illnesses and injuries during hurricane cleanup.

OSHA has also released information on hazards involved in the clean-up and where to go for help. This comprehensive website offers fact sheets, concise “quick cards,” frequently asked questions, safety and health guides, and additional information in English and Spanish.  

“There are a wide range of hazards to which workers, volunteers and home owners may be exposed,” said Vincent Alvarez, president of the New York City Central Labor Council. “These include safety hazards such as electrocution, asphyxiation and exposure to toxic substances such as asbestos, lead, silica and biological hazards such as mold and bacteria from backed up sewage.”  

OSHA highlights the following safety hazards in hurricane cleanup: “downed electrical wires, carbon monoxide and electrical hazards from portable generators, fall and ” struck-by” hazards from tree trimming or working at heights, being caught in unprotected excavations or confined spaces, burns, lacerations, musculoskeletal injuries, being struck by traffic or heavy equipment, and drowning from being caught in moving water or while removing water from flooded structures.”

According to John Durso, President of the Long Island Federation of Labor, “Previous emergency events such as World Trade Center, Hurricane Katrina and Deepwater Horizon have demonstrated that there are significant gaps in responding to emergency worker and volunteer health and safety needs – resulting in tens of thousands of rescue and clean up workers becoming ill.  The fact sheet produced by NYCOSH provides information about safety and health hazards cleanup workers can expect to encounter and links to other useful information.”

In addition to such widespread hazards, NYCOSH is particularly concerned about clean up of areas such as the Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek in which the storm water is likely overflow into nearby residential areas. Sewage poses very significant threats to human health. Safe and effective cleanup or removal of sewage-contaminated materials is usually best left to technically qualified, environmental professionals.

“The Gowanus Canal is a federally designated Super Fund site,” said Joel Shufro, Executive Director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. “The canal contains highly toxic substances and it is imperative that special precautions be taken and that only workers who are appropriately trained participate in the clean up.”

“Many  are already performing heroically in responding to the needs of those affected by Hurricane Sandy;  tens of thousands of workers in both the public and private sector  will be involved in the clean-up efforts in the months to come,” Shufro said.  â€œAs we continue to support these efforts, we also want to ensure that no one is injured or  made ill  from doing this work.  As we witnessed with the September 11 attacks and with Hurricane Katrina, the hazards involved in clean-up work are numerous (click here for NYCOSH factsheet), and workers  must understand  the risks  involved, must receive  the training necessary to do the jobs safely, and  must have the proper  (personal protective) equipment necessary to perform their tasks safely.”  

If you are involved in these efforts,  or you know others who are and may be experiencing hazardous conditions, please  share your concerns on NYCOSH’s Facebook page.  

Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, employers must provide a safe and healthful workplace free of recognized hazards and follow OSHA standards. Employers’ responsibilities also include providing training, personal protective equipment appropriate to the cleanup tasks. Employers are also required to provide medical examinations and recordkeeping. Workers should report hazardous conditions to OSHA by calling 1-800-321-OSHA (6742) or submitting an online form here.