OSHA urged cleanup and recovery workers to be wary of hazards amid the post-hurricane Sandy debris. Still, many workers suffered chemical exposure, falls, and electrical shocks, in part due to the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE). An investigation by Daily News revealed that many of thousands of workers who cleaned and rebuilt homes in hurricane-struck regions were shocked by live wires, injured by chemicals, and fell from roofs due to lack of adequate protection.
OSHA records published under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that patrolling federal inspectors found 3,100 instances of unsafe job conditions and removed around 7,900 workers from hazards. What may be most surprising, however, is that “although OSHA found thousands of cleanup workers doing jobs in unsafe conditions, almost no one was punished.”
OSHA issued a mere 32 violations, and imposed fines between $1,000 and $11,600 to reach a grand total of only $141,934: a slap on the wrist. In most of the violations, OSHA was lenient towards the contractors after safety violations and simply issued warnings. (Source: Daily News)
Arguably, many contractors’ interests lied in getting the work done as quickly as possible, rather than taking the time to adequately protect workers.
Gabino Hernandez, a cleanup worker, saw 17 workers on a roof without fall protection in the Rockaways, Queens. He quizzed his boss about these dangerous conditions and was stunned by the reply. “He thought it was a joke,” Hernandez said. “He said, ‘Don’t worry about it. These guys have 15 years of experience and nothing would happen to them. Don’t worry about it if someone falls. If he dies, he dies.’”
Hurricane Sandy resulted in 135 deaths. Another two happened due to safety violations during the cleanup, according to OSHA.
One of the deaths occurred when a worker tried to climb a roof without a fellow worker to hold the ladder. Although the police reported that the ladder was faulty at the scene, OSHA’s later investigation found that it was in perfect condition. It’s likely that the company repaired the ladder before it was seen by an inspector (but that’s speculation).
In many cases, companies paid their fines and then passed safety inspections. In other cases, fines were reduced in later settlements with OSHA. Could those fine reductions and settlements make safety compliance seem less crucial to employers? Meanwhile, workers suffer.
The long-term effect on Hurricane Sandy workers remains to be seen.