Workers and neighbors still at risk; steps toward a safe cleanup require vigilance from laborers, employers and public
In the aftermath of the massive chemical fires at the International Terminals Co. in Deer Park, Houston’s Faith and Justice Worker Center reminds cleanup workers that all people have the right to a safe workplace, and that vigilance over workplace health risks is especially important in restoration work.
“Employers in cleanup projects have the responsibility to minimize risks, provide task and safety training, and provide personal protective equipment to their employees,” says Marianela Acuña Arreaza, executive director with FJWC, “and workers need to remember they have the right to a safe workplace and to get paid all their hours.”
Peter Dooley of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health said, “There have been many instances in the past that disaster events have resulted in dire consequences to the first line workers assisting the community in the aftermath. Hurricanes, fires and explosions have all resulted in many worker casualties.”
Many health risks from exposure are immediate, but the aftereffects on responders to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks provide sobering evidence that negative impacts may also appear many years in the future.
Luis Vazquez, of the International Chemical Workers Union Council in Cincinnati, noted that firefighters experience elevated rates of cancer diagnoses, and that much of that may be due to increased exposures to the chemical by-products of combustion. Cleanup workers could be exposed to some of the same chemicals and by-products of combustion as well.
To keep workers safe, caution and best practices in cleanup safety are paramount.
“The aftermath of a fire that burned hazardous chemicals could pose at least two hazards--the fallout of contaminated soot from the decomposition products of the fire, and any chemical residue that might still be in the air contamination,” said Dooley. “The biggest hazard is from breathing these substances.”
What to Watch For
Dooley said workers and those who live nearby should watch for soot on surfaces, peculiar smells in the air, and health symptoms, especially breathing problems and rashes or irritations.
Common symptoms include:
coughing, difficulty breathing or burning sensations
irritation and redness to the eyes, nose or throat
headaches, nausea or dizziness
The elderly, pregnant women, children, those with respiratory issues, or the immunosuppressed may be especially impacted. Anyone experiencing these symptoms should go indoors or leave the contaminated area and seek medical care. (Source: Harris County Public Health Alert)
What Do Workers Need?
Workers have the right to receive training from their employers about the hazardous materials they may encounter, best practices to protect themselves, and what to do if they see an unsafe situation. They should receive from their employers safety data sheets for the chemicals involved in the fire, including the effects of burning on the chemicals and what kinds of decomposition products result. Employers should discuss this information and ensure that workers understand it. They should also distribute information issued by the Harris County Public Health Department.
Workers may need personal protective equipment depending on the specific conditions resulting from the fires. If soot is present, workers need to know about and use special procedures like damp or wet wipe cleaning.
FJWC urges employers to seek out and distribute all information about the risks and potential risks of working in the affected areas to their workers, and to make clear that reports of unsafe work conditions are helpful to the efforts to restore the area and to be encouraged.
Workers are invited to call the FJWC’s labor rights hotline if they have concerns about their safety and would like to know more about the protections they are entitled to.
“When you’re in a situation in which you’re not sure whether your workplace is safe, or whether there are hazards that can’t be foreseen, it’s important to keep a ‘good worry,’” said Marianela Acuña Arreaza, executive director for FJWC. “Don’t assume you’re safe because other people are doing the same things, or because there has been an announcement. Evaluate the dangers for yourself as best you can, and if you are uneasy, seek out more information from a source you trust, or just stay on the safe side.”
Any symptoms or questions about exposure should be referred to the Harris County Public Health Department at 713-439-6012. Unsafe workplaces can be reported to FJWC’s hotline at 713-862-8222 and Occupational Safety and Health Agency.
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