On Sept. 11, Remember the Workers Who Risked Their Lives to Help
On the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the union movement will join with the rest of America and pause for a moment of silence today at 8:46 a.m. EDT in memory of those who perished that tragic day.
More than 600 union members were killed on Sept. 11. Union members responded with an outpouring of funds and volunteered thousands of hours to help treat the injured and rescue and recover the victims.
Flight Attendants-CWA President Patricia Friend says:
The grief we continue to experience over the events of that morning will always be an important part of our history. But rather than allow that grief to deplete us, we must transform it into action and take from it the important lessons that can guide our future actions.
Today, along with the moments of silence and ceremonies, you will hear a lot of political rhetoric about the war on terror and how it has changed our lives. But you won’t hear much about how 9/11 changed the lives of the more than 40,000 rescue and recovery workers, mostly union members, who risked their lives in what was one of the largest rescue efforts in world history.
Nor will you hear how short-sighted policies have made the lives of those brave men and women even worse in what some public health experts say was a systematic effort by the Bush administration to undercut the efforts of experienced health administrators in New York and at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
Thousands of workers who worked in the rubble of the World Trade Center are at risk for chronic diseases, but some officials don’t want to go the distance to help them.
Says Ronald Ault, president of the AFL-CIO Metal Trades Department, many of whose members helped in the recovery effort:
When our country was knocked to her knees on 9/11, thousands of union craft workers responded selflessly to use their skills to help in the recovery and risked their lives and their health in the process. Those efforts were not even acknowledged by the White House, where the fledgling administration continued to pour out hostile policies undermining wages, pensions and security and attacking the very unions that represent these proud and heroic workers.
Two recent studies put the health issue in perspective. A study by doctors at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City finds that nearly 70 percent of firefighters, police officers, emergency medical crews, construction workers, utility workers and volunteers have suffered lung and other health problems.
The report outlines a “complex list of toxic chemicals”—from jet fuel to asbestos to PCBs—to which workers were exposed immediately after the attacks and during the months-long cleanup.
A second study shows that the nearly 12,000 firefighters and emergency medical workers who took part in the Ground Zero rescue and recovery operations experienced such severe trauma to their lungs that those organs aged the equivalent of 12 years in the year following the attack—putting them at risk for chronic lung problems later in life.
Published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, the study identified some 400 chemicals in the toxic mix of dust and dirt at Ground Zero.
Says Joel Shufro, executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, a nonprofit coalition of 200 local unions and more than 400 individual workers, physicians, lawyers and other health and safety activists:
From the very beginning, the workers and volunteers were treated grotesquely, because government officials decided that mandating the use of adequate respiratory protection would undermine that lie that the air was safe to breathe. If the workers had been required to use respirators, it would have been obvious that the air was not safe to breathe and that the stock exchange and the world’s biggest banks could not safely reopen before an unprecedented decontamination job had been carried out.
Now, there are at least 15,000 sick workers and others, many of whom are not getting better, and more people are developing new respiratory illnesses every day.
Says Peter Gorman, president of Fire Fighters Local 854:
We didn’t need a study to tell us about the health problems from 9/11. We could see it when our members had hacking coughs. The labor movement has been outspoken about the ill effects. I hope these studies pave the way for health care and funding for long-term monitoring of these workers’ health care needs.
As if their health problems were not bad enough, the workers faced the insulting prospect of losing their jobs. In May 2003, New York’s Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the closing of six engine companies to save $8 million in the $1.3 billion operating budget for the Fire Department.
The New York union movement spearheaded efforts to move legislation that would protect the first responders at Ground Zero, and Gov. George Pataki (R) recently signed union-backed legislation that greatly expanded the benefits for ailing 9/11 rescue workers, including a bill that will pay line-of-duty benefits to the families of first responders who die from illnesses contracted at Ground Zero and related sites. Pataki signed the bills into law hours after Bloomberg repeated his opposition to the legislation because of the potential cost to the city.
Immediately after the attacks, then-Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christine Todd Whitman assured the public the site was safe. Newsday reported the Bush administration gave Whitman the right to bury embarrassing EPA documents about the chemicals and other hazards by classifying them as secret.
Whitman’s comments were consistent with a systematic effort by the Bush administration to undercut the efforts of experienced health administrators in New York and at NIOSH, according to public health historians David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, whose comments are posted by Jordan Barab at Confined Space:
By pressing them to return the city to “normal” and feeding them doctored information about dust levels—ignoring scientific uncertainties about the dangers that lingered in the air—the administration lied to support a national policy of denial.
Those policies, coupled with cuts in the national public health budgets, set the stage for a faulty, tragically inadequate structure to respond to disasters, Rosner and Markowitz say. As evidence, they cite the administration’s failed response to Hurricane Katrina.
Or, as Gorman says:
A disaster—manmade or natural—can hit anytime. It’s unbelievable that we don’t have a system in place to monitor and treat people who respond to these disasters.