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September 20, 2006

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The 9/11 nightmare goes on for ‘Ground Zero’ emergency workers

A comprehensive study of the health of workers who helped clean up in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York has revealed that thousands are now suffering from respiratory problems caused by the dust and fumes that enveloped ‘Ground Zero’ on and after September 11, 2001 (according to a report in the New York Times).

The Mount Sinai Medical Centre tested some 10,000 of the estimated 40,000-strong response force between 2002 and 2004 and found that around 70 per cent had new, or substantially worse respiratory difficulties since working at the site. Hazards that would have been present in the wake of the buildings’ collapse include cement and drywall dust, airborne particles of burnt plastic, asbestos, and carbon monoxide.

The New York Fire Department, whose workers were tested in a separate screening programme, said a study it released earlier this year showed that among fire-fighters who responded to the emergency there were steep losses in lung capacity and a five-fold increase in the incidence of lung scarring.

More than 8000 emergency personnel are currently engaged in a lawsuit against the city of New York, arguing that there was a lack of suitable respirators provided for workers during the clean-up operation. A report in the New York Times in June revealed that although more than 150,000 half-face respirator masks were distributed, most workers either did not receive a mask, or did not use them. Lawyers representing the workers, who include fire-fighters, police officers, and private workers, told the paper there was no central distribution point for the equipment, no single organisation responsible for handing them out, and no one in charge of ensuring they were used, or used properly.

In relation to these issues, the US Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA – equivalent to the HSE in the UK) has come in for particular criticism over its decision at the time not to enforce normal workplace safety regulations but to act instead in the role of consultant and provider of technical assistance.

The city of New York is endeavouring to have the lawsuit dismissed, claiming the contractors it hired to help in the clean-up operation did their best to provide adequate equipment but many workers ignored the pamphlets distributed and signs erected telling them to wear the respirators.

But officials are now coming under attack again in the wake of the health study, with many commentators claiming that too little is being done to help. The federal budget to cover the government’s “9/11” health efforts has been derided as too low, while the launch of clincial diagnosis guidelines just before the fifth anniversary of the attacks last month was heavily criticised as much too late. Senator Hillary Clinton, who has been pushing for more federal funding for health treatment for the Ground Zero workers, said of the Mount Sinai study: “[It] puts to rest any doubt about what is happening to those who were exposed.”


Approaches to managing the risks associated Musculoskeletal disorders

In this episode of the Safety & Health Podcast, we hear from Matt Birtles, Principal Ergonomics Consultant at HSE’s Science and Research Centre, about the different approaches to managing the risks associated with Musculoskeletal disorders.

Matt, an ergonomics and human factors expert, shares his thoughts on why MSDs are important, the various prevalent rates across the UK, what you can do within your own organisation and the Risk Management process surrounding MSD’s.

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