Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Why the Safety Net Collapsed for WTC Rescue Workers

[My friend Peter F. Rousmaniere during the past nine months has been studying the problems of World Trade Center rescue and emergency workers in obtaining compensation for illnesses they contracted that may be attributable to the conditions under which they worked. I am interested in this subject because, as Chief Economist for the NYC Comptroller, I was asked to assess the economic damage of the WTC attacks for purposes of obtaining State and Federal aid. I have maintained, then and now, that there would be a longer tail than some have asserted to the economic effects of 9/11. As a risk management professional who writes frequently on occupational risks (last year I posted an interview with him on workers comp in NY State), Peter has been researching how the system has worked out for WTC workers. Peter lives in Woodstock VT, and can be reached at 802-457-9149; email pfr@rousmaniere.com.]

The health problems of World Trade Center rescue, recovery and cleanup workers have been in the news. Now Peter F. Rousmaniere has produced the most comprehensive analysis to date of what actually went wrong. He says there were three independent failures at the local or state levels:

One, the City’s safety enforcement at Ground Zero was poor, well below recognized standards, and inexcusable notwithstanding the scale of the challenge.

Two, employers, insurers, the City and state regulators failed to monitor the health condition of these workers, even though it was well known that these workers were vulnerable to slowly emerging diseases. This failure greatly increased the uncertainty today about the health status of tens of thousands of workers.

Three, New York state’s workers compensation system effectively collapsed as a provider of adequate medical and disability support, thereby inflaming demands for support from the Federal Government and through the courts.

Risk & Insurance Magazine, a leading business publication, is publishing Rousmaniere's articles about his investigation. The first three installments may be downloaded. The fourth and final installment will be published on November 1.

Within a few days after the WTC towers’ collapse, it was clear that those overseeing ground zero had to implement a safety program without delay, using the best resources available in the country. But the City and its contractors in 2001 were failing to enforce basic standards of worker protection. It took well after September 2001 for officials to formalize even a basic safety plan.

It is axiomatic that workers exposed to high levels of toxic materials should be monitored regularly for their health status. The only workers who were monitored carefully were New York City firefighters. Tens of thousands of workers were allowed into ground zero without any check for their existing health status, and there was no attempt to check up on them later. Confusion today about the actual health status and prognosis of these workers can be directly linked to the absence of medical surveillance from the start.

The workers compensation system of New York was created in part out of reaction to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Since then, the system has restricted access to persons who acquire diseases at work, such as lung conditions and posttraumatic stress disorders. Substantial numbers of World Trade Center workers have symptoms of these diseases. Workers compensation law is expressly designed to frustrate claims arising from disasters except from those whose full time work is emergency response. It took the legislature until 2006 to amend the law to give these workers fairer access to benefits.

The lessons from this experience start with the urgent need to place disaster site control in the hands of organizations and leaders who are up to the challenge. A threshold needs to be set above which the Feds should by default be placed in charge of managing a disaster at the earliest feasible moment. The fires currently raging in southern California would be below the threshold, in part because Californian fire fighting agencies have over the years become a national model of emergency response.

Also, the Federal Government should fund and install quickly a medical monitoring system in any disaster in which it is involved. We cannot trust employers, insurers or state regulators to take on this task.

Third, because legal barriers to benefits from the workers compensation system exist in most states, the federal government should assume responsibility of administering workers compensation benefits for disaster workers. There is a sorry history of Washington having to assume workers compensation responsibilities for workforces struck by disease.

If we fail to apply the lessons from these failures, Rousmaniere concludes, we may pay the price in vastly greater death and disability among workers, for instance in responding to a pandemic in the future.

We may also find it harder to recruit emergency workers.