The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is the federal agency responsible for ensuring safe and healthy working conditions for millions of workers in the country. But when it comes to workers who respond to disasters, such as hurricanes, floods and wildfires, OSHA has a different approach: It does not enforce its own standards, but instead offers guidance and assistance to employers.
This policy was born after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when OSHA made an agreement with the four companies that cleaned up the World Trade Center site. OSHA agreed not to issue citations or penalties for any violations of its regulations, as long as the companies fixed them promptly and cooperated with the agency. OSHA also provided training, equipment and monitoring to protect workers from exposure to hazardous substances, such as asbestos, lead and silica.
OSHA’s former head, John Henshaw, who oversaw the 9/11 response, said this approach was meant to expedite solutions and protect workers in a complex and chaotic situation. He believed that suspending OSHA’s enforcement mandate would allow its inspectors to access worksites easily, and would bring transparency to its oversight process.
Henshaw wrote an emergency management plan in 2003 that institutionalized this voluntary compliance mode for future disasters. The plan was first implemented in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana. Since then, OSHA has used this policy for every major disaster in the U.S., including the recent ones fueled by climate change.
However, some experts and advocates have criticized OSHA’s policy for disaster workers, arguing that it leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by employers who may cut corners on safety and health measures. They also point out that the conditions and risks faced by disaster workers are different from those of 9/11 responders, who were mostly unionized and had access to legal representation and medical care.
A recent investigation by Columbia Journalism Investigations and the Center for Public Integrity found that many disaster workers are exposed to known carcinogens and toxic substances, often unwittingly and without protections, which can make them sick. Some suffer debilitating health issues long after they have left cleanup jobs.
The investigation also revealed that OSHA’s policy has failed to prevent or address serious violations of its standards by disaster employers. For example, OSHA did not cite or fine a Florida company that exposed its workers to high levels of mold after Hurricane Irma in 2017, even though it had documented evidence of the violation. The company later fired two workers who complained about their health problems.
OSHA’s current director, James Frederick, said he is reviewing the agency’s emergency management plan and considering changes to improve its effectiveness and accountability. He said he is open to exploring other options, such as issuing emergency temporary standards or increasing enforcement actions, to better protect disaster workers.
Frederick also said he is aware of the challenges posed by climate change, which is expected to increase the frequency and intensity of natural disasters in the U.S. He said OSHA is working with other federal agencies and stakeholders to prepare for future emergencies and ensure adequate resources and coordination.
Climate change affect disaster workers
Climate change affects disaster workers in many ways, such as:
It increases the frequency and intensity of natural disasters, such as hurricanes, floods, wildfires, and heat waves, which create more demand for disaster recovery and relief work. This can put more pressure and stress on disaster workers, who may have to work longer hours, travel to more locations, and face more hazards123
It exposes disaster workers to higher temperatures and poor air quality, which can cause heat illnesses, respiratory illnesses, and other health problems. Disaster workers may not have adequate access to protective equipment, hydration, ventilation, or medical care. They may also lack training or awareness of the risks and symptoms of these illnesses124
It makes disaster workers more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by employers who may cut corners on safety and health measures, violate labor laws, or withhold wages. Disaster workers may not have legal protection or representation, especially if they are immigrants or undocumented. They may also face discrimination or violence from local communities or authorities24
It disrupts the lives and livelihoods of disaster workers, who may lose their homes, belongings, or family members to climate disasters. They may also face difficulties in finding stable or decent work after the disaster recovery is over. They may suffer from mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or substance abuse23
These are some of the ways that climate change affects disaster workers.