We Must Protect the Workers Who Will Rebuild after Hurricane Harvey

September 5, 2017 | 4:16 pm
Coast Guard repairs and replaces buoys and other aids damaged by Hurricane Harvey. Photo: US Coast Guard/Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Cox
Kathleen Rest
Former Executive Director

Storm waters in the greater Houston area are subsiding and the scale of devastation and destruction is staggering. The personal loss, pain, and suffering of families and impacted communities are immeasurable.

As the immediate crisis of saving lives and providing emergency aid and shelter to many thousands winds down, the daunting task of recovery, cleanup, and rebuilding of homes, businesses, and essential infrastructure begins. And, with my 25-plus years of work and experience in occupational health and safety, I am all too aware of the myriad hazards, exposures, and risks workers will be facing in this long-term effort.

Safeguarding workers’ health and safety must not be an afterthought.

The work: dirty, dangerous, and risky

Post-disaster recovery, cleanup, and reconstruction operations present a panoply of risks and dangers—with workers on the front lines.

Some workers will be tasked with the highly hazardous task of getting the area’s oil refineries and chemical plants back on-line. Start-up operations can result in uncontrolled releases and explosions that place the workers and surrounding communities at grave health and safety risk. The US Chemical Safety Board has issued a safety alert, urging caution and providing a checklist for evaluating systems, tanks, instrumentation, and equipment before start-up.

Other workers will be working in and around the 13 highly contaminated Superfund sites that have flooded and sustained storm damage. As of this writing, the EPA reports that 11 additional Superfund sites remain inaccessible to response personnel, so the extent of damage is unknown.

And many if not most workers in the greater Houston area will be doing jobs that, at least in the short term, only compound the well-recognized hazards, exposures, and risks they generally encounter.

Hurricanes and super storms like Harvey, Sandy, and Katrina just pile on additional hazards, including mold, mold, and more mold; water contaminated with chemicals and waste; working in and around unstable structures; and carbon monoxide poisoning due to the use of generators in poorly ventilated areas—an all-too-common event in post-disaster work. These are all on top of the falls, cuts, burns, amputations, and machine and musculoskeletal injuries that are all to frequent in today’s workplaces.  And silica, asbestos, and lead just add to the mix of dangers involved in demolition operations that will be ongoing in Houston. (You can also read my prior commentary on workplace injury, illness, and fatality tolls.)

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has established protective health and safety standards for many of these hazards, and they remain applicable even during disasters.  Employers remain responsible for complying with these protections.

In the early days of a disaster, OSHA rightly focuses on compliance assistance (outreach, information, and training for employers and workers). But it should shift to enforcement as the immediate crisis passes. We have seen, for example, the consequences of a lack of enforcement of required respiratory protection after 9/11, leading to the illness and death of workers exposed to toxic dust.  Federal agencies have resources and information about these general hazards, as well as disaster-focused resources and information for employers, workers, and the public (including here, here, and here).

While helpful, information on a website is not enough; workers, communities, and the impacted public will need resources and action on the ground. And this will surely strain the capacity and resources of agencies that must continue to meet their existing responsibilities at the same time.

The workers

As they did in the aftermath of Katrina and Sandy, day laborers will comprise a significant portion of the clean-up and reconstruction efforts in Houston. Homeowners (already stressed by their losses) and contractors alike will be looking for workers to remove debris, pump out water, remove and remediate mold damage, and demolish and renovate structures.

Houston has a large population of day laborers and low-wage workers, many undocumented, many Latino. These workers—who will likely be the mainstay of Houston’s recovery efforts—face a host of additional challenges. Fearing discrimination, family separation, and even deportation, they may be unwilling to ask for protective equipment and training or report unsafe working conditions and wage and hour violations.

Health and safety research and statistics tell us that Latino workers experience higher rates of workplace injury and illness than other segments of the US workforce and significantly higher rates of workplace fatalities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics 2013 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, Hispanic or Latino workers were the only racial/ethnic group with an increase in workplace fatalities in 2013. The 797 Hispanic or Latino worker deaths constituted the highest total since 2008 and a seven percent increase over 2012.

Of course, in addition to day laborers, many other workers will be needed for the area’s long-term clean up and recovery efforts. They, too, will face many of the same hazards and exposures as their counterparts who are picking up day jobs on street corners and in worker centers (like Fey Justicia Worker Center in Houston). All of these workers will be in it for the long haul, and deserve the protection, training, and equipment they need to help their cities and communities recover and rebuild without sacrificing their own health and safety in the process.

Lessons learned?

We’ve seen what can happen in the aftermath of a disaster if we take our eye off the ball in protecting our rescue and recovery workers. Katrina, Sandy, 9/11—all have lessons to teach. Most are applicable to what’s facing workers who are on-the-ground now responding to Harvey and who will be there for years to come.

Avoiding the additional tragedy of workplace deaths, injuries, and illnesses in the recovery and reconstruction process will require the sustained attention of state, local, and federal agencies, employers and contractors, informed workers, and a vigilant public. This is made all the more difficult by the Trump administration’s all-out assault on workplace protections and his blatant ignorance and disregard for the value immigrants bring to our nation’s labor force.

Now is the time to ensure that our existing worker safety and health protections are strong and are vigorously enforced; it is not the time to roll back or weaken these worker protections—or environmental protections for communities.

Now is the time to ensure that our worker health and safety agencies have the staffing and budgets they need to fulfill their statutory mandates to protect the nation’s workforce. It is not the time to cut budgets for agencies already stretched to the limit in trying to do so.

Now is the time to honor, value, and protect those workers who rush into harm’s way in the face of disasters and those who stay with it to repair, rebuild, and revitalize the communities they hit. It is certainly not the time to turn the lives of immigrant and undocumented workers upside down.

Your voice matters. Let your elected leaders know that you expect them to support strong worker safety and health protections—and that you will hold them accountable if they don’t. Now is the perfect time. Here are some tips and resources that may be helpful.