Scott Schneider

I 'm sure that many of the large contractors moving in to do clean up work after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita will have good safety programs and properly protect their employees. But many of the smaller contractors may not. We know temporary construction labor agencies are recruiting in the Gulf Coast region with advertisements for basically warm bodies with little or no construction experience or training. What will conditions be like for people doing home clean ups and renovations? How many injuries and illnesses will these workers suffer?

As director of occupational safety and health for the laborers' union Health and Safety Fund of North America, I want to ensure their safety. And there is cause for concern.

The recovery effort at the World Trade Center in New York City four years ago went very well, in part due to the highly controlled site and the well-established contractors that performed above and beyond expectations. Yet in the early days of the recovery, with thousands of people working at the site, many as volunteers, proper precautions were not taken, and thousands of people appear to be sick as a result. Respirators were not worn by many, resulting in thousands of new cases of lung disease and millions of dollars in medical care.

Now that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is reconsidering some of the contracts it has already awarded, we need to make sure worker safety is a top priority. With the Katrina (and Rita) clean-up, workers may be exposed to mold, sewage, gasoline and fuel oil and asbestos. In addition, there are numerous safety hazards, such as back injuries from lifting water soaked debris or demolishing damaged buildings.

My philosophy is if we plan for the worst, perhaps it won't happen. Whoever is letting contracts for this work, including residential work, should require that:

  • " No workers should be allowed to work on the site without basic construction safety training, such as the OSHA 10 hour course. Many will require hazardous waste training. While some say this is more red tape, rushing people to work at the site without proper training will be a disaster. While we want the area to be rebuilt as quickly as possible, we need to take the time to do it right."
  • " All workers should additionally have training specific for the hazards to be faced in cleaning up this site. OSHA and NIEHS are rapidly putting this course together, based on the OSHA Disaster Response Worker Training program that was recently completed.
  • " Workers will also need some mental health assistance. In a disaster clean up, there is always a lot of anxiety about the unknown as well as very stressful conditions and long hours. They can easily get burned out.
  • " All contractors hired to do this work must be pre-qualified based on their safety records and have adequate safety training for their supervisors, who ultimately control safety on those sites.
  • " All workers must be properly equipped and protected, which would include having proper vaccinations such as tetanus and Hepatitis. Contractors will need to include these costs in their budgets.

The Bush Administration's recent letter to Congress suspending the Davis-Bacon Act as it applies to this work is not a good sign. If workers are to be paid less than the prevailing rate (about $9 an hour in New Orleans), we will not get the skilled, trained workforce we need to do the job right and for the future reconstruction. Safety should not be compromised. Otherwise, another disaster will follow.

At the Laborers' Health and Safety Fund we have been developing specific materials for training and informing our members working in the gulf about the hazards and how to protect themselves. We have multiple training classes running simultaneously at our Louisiana training center and are bringing in mobile training vans from other states to run even more.

I hope we do not look back six months or a year from now and say we "should have" done better. The industry needs to speak with one voice on this and insist that safety is part of the bottom line on this disaster response site.

(Photo courtesy Laborers Health & Safety Fund of North America)