It’s in the Water: Protecting Hurricane Recovery Workers

Hurricane Harvey With both Harvey and Irma behind us (barely), the time for cleanup, recovery and rebuilding is here. And workers across the region and from across the United States will be looking for work. We have discussed many of the hazards these workers will face — primarily from working at heights, and working with electricity, tree limbs and dangerous machinery. Another hazard — water contamination and mold — are also coming to the attention of the media and the public. Most of the articles are focused on warning residents to minimize contact with the water and mold, which may containing bacteria, viruses, hazardous chemicals, heavy metals and other potentially toxic pollutants, and how to decontaminate themselves afterwards. But whereas most homeowners will have intermittent contact with the contaminated materials, recovery workers may be in constant contact for eight to twelve hours a day.

The Hazards

A New York Times article today noted that EPA has reported that 40 of 1,219 wastewater treatment plants are not operating in the Houston area. Times reporters  have done some of their own testing and an article today noted that:

Water flowing down Briarhills Parkway in the Houston Energy Corridor contained Escherichia coli, a measure of fecal contamination, at a level more than four times that considered safe.

In the Clayton Homes public housing development downtown, along the Buffalo Bayou, scientists found what they considered astonishingly high levels of E. coli in standing water in one family’s living room — levels 135 times those considered safe — as well as elevated levels of lead, arsenic and other heavy metals in sediment from the floodwaters in the kitchen.

 “There’s pretty clearly sewage contamination, and it’s more concentrated inside the home than outside the home,” said Lauren Stadler, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University who participated in The Times’s research.

In the Houston area you have a huge concentration of chemical plants and refineries that have suffered flooding and water damage.

In the Houston area, the AP reports that

More than two dozen storage tanks holding crude oil, gasoline and other contaminants ruptured or otherwise failed when Harvey slammed into the Texas coast, spilling at least 145,000 gallons (548,868 liters) of fuel and spewing toxic pollutants into the air, according to an Associated Press analysis of pollution reports submitted to state and federal regulators.

The tank failures follow years of warnings that the Houston area’s petrochemical industry was ill-prepared for a major storm, with about one-third of the 4,500 storage tanks along the Houston Ship Channel located in areas susceptible to flooding, according to researchers.

Florida has no refineries, but there are an enormous number of facilities that may have chemical storage tanks that may have overflowed, been punctured or just floated away.

Although Florida has no oil refineries, it has more than 20 petroleum product storage terminals in coastal communities and about 30 chemical companies with a presence in the state, including a significant number of facilities in the Tampa Bay area, according to the American Chemistry Council and U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“Tampa Bay is one of the most vulnerable cities in the country” to hurricanes, said John Pardue, a Louisiana State University professor who has researched problems with storage tanks during storms.

There are not federal or state regulations that mandate that chemical plants or storage facilities in a flood zone do anything different than those not in a flood zone. There are also no government rules that address huge rainfalls, and even voluntary industry standards didn’t anticipate the rain levels that Houston experienced.

And then, of course, there are flooded Superfund sites that have the potential of spreading contamination far and wide. As of September 2, EPA reported that thirteen Superfund sites in the area hit by Harvey had been flooded or damaged.  A PBS investigation before Irma hit found that there are more than 50 Superfund sites in Florida alone. Reporters went out to check some of the sites before the hurricane and what they found was disturbing:

Anodyne, which had the barrels out yesterday, had been contaminated with DDT, and other pesticides, chemical solvents. Many of the sites here in the Miami area had chemical solvents involved, usually in the aircraft industry, used to clean parts, things like that, and those were dumped into soil and down into the aquifer here in contaminated groundwater.

It’s unclear to what extent these sites were damaged by Irma.

And, of course, like most environmental problems, low income people and neighborhoods are hardest hit, as the Texas Tribune pointed out: “An analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity released Friday found that nine of 16 flooded Superfund sites are in neighborhoods where a majority of residents are minority or low-income.”

As I’ve said before, although facilities and public agencies can get away (to a certain extent) with claiming that the severe weather in Houston was unprecedented and unpredictable, the history of the last few weeks, and the undeniable effects of climate change mean that government agencies, industry associations and businesses themselves need to figure out how to deal with extreme weather — especially in the
Gulf region with its high concentration of chemical facilities, and high likelihood of getting hit by increasingly powerful hurricanes.

Protecting workers

The Occupational Safety and Health Act requires employers to provide a safe workplace for their employees.  OSHA has numerous standards covering personal protective equipment, hazardous waste response, chemical exposure and training and others that would apply to workers performing recovery operations. OSHA also has its “General Duty Clause” that applies in situations where there is a clear and recognized hazard, but no specific OSHA standard.  And workers (whether documented or not) have a right to request an OSHA inspection if they’re being forced to work in an unsafe environment.

There is no excuse for employers to claim that they didn’t have the information available to know how to protect their employees

But, of course, workers first have to know what’s dangerous. Although employers have responsibility to train workers about the chemical hazards they may be facing, training requirements for other hazards (such as mold) are weaker, or non-existent.  Nevertheless, workers need to be protected. They need to be trained about the hazards they will face, and provided with the equipment they need to protect themselves. Most important, employers need to listen to workers’ concerns about hazards and respond to those concerns.

Happily, due to experience acquired during Hurricane Katrina and Sandy, government agencies such as the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), OSHA and NIOSH have developed materials that workers and employers can use to learn about the hazards workers face during hurricane recovery.

The NIEHS Worker Training Program , National Clearing House for Worker Safety and Health has the most extensive library of worker friendly health and safety material for recovery workers, including materials (including fact sheets, booklets, flyers, course outlines and phone apps) in English, Spanish and Viet-Namese for protecting workers against contaminated water, mold, debris and tree removal and other hazards.  Their

OSHA has materials on hurricanes and floods, as well as a Hazard Exposure and Risk Assessment Matrix for Hurricane Recovery and Response Work. In addition to hazard information, the OSHA materials contain valuable information about workers’ rights  and employers’ responsibilities.

NIOSH has a webpage dedicated to Storm, Flood, and Hurricane Response including Hazard Based Guidelines: Protective Equipment for Workers in Hurricane Flood Response,

NIEHS’s publication, Protecting Yourself While Helping Others, for example addresses the hazards of falls, ladders, traffic, heat, cold, insects, snakes, power lines, chainsaws, debris piles and unsafe surfaces, confined spaces and structural integrity of buildings. Am I missing anything. Oh yes, heat, cold, sunburn, noise, trench foot, mold, chemical waste food and water-borne disease, poisonous plants, stress and handling dead bodies.

Ensuring Worker Safety

The main message here is that there is no excuse for employers to claim that they didn’t have the information available to know how to protect their employees against the hazards of contaminated water or any other flood or hurricane-related hazards.

OSHA is busy making sure that employers and workers have the information they need to stay safe. OSHA has a responsibility to make sure that employers are providing safe working conditions. The question everyone is asking now is what OSHA will do to ensure that employers are doing everything they can to ensure the safety of their employees.  Specifically, at what point will OSHA begin to cite employers who consistently ignore worker safety?  Workers need to demand work in safe conditions and demand that OSHA enforce the law.  We will see in the coming weeks and months how OSHA responds.

Hurricane Harvey Hurricane Irma NIOSH OSHA Workplace Illness

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for drawing attention to employer responsibility. Of course, home and business owners, contractors and small companies will all claim that they are not employers and have no responsibility. Even worker advocates tend to accept the lack of responsibility and instead teach workers to protect themselves. There needs to be affirmative assertion of responsibility and protection of workers’ rights and safety — otherwise, everyone will pass the buck and take advantage of these workers’ desperation and fear. They will work hard, be imperiled, suffer injuries and keep working, shirk it off when they aren’t paid, and line up again. Meanwhile, just about everyone will look the other way. I think that NIOSH needs to issue a Criteria Document for Protection of Workers During and in Response to Disasters and Emergencies.

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