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Right now thousands of workers are involved in heroic recovery and clean-up operations at the site of the World Trade Center and in the surrounding area. The New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) has received many questions from workers, unions and Lower Manhattan residents about the safety and health hazards that they may be exposed to, including contaminated air and the danger of communicable disease.
This factsheet provides a description of some of the potential hazards and an outline of ways that workers and managers can minimize some of the hazards.
To obtain additional information about these and other hazards and methods of protecting safety and health, please contact any of the organizations listed on the last page.
For additional information about safety and health in the aftermath of the catastrophe at the World Trade Center, see the NYCOSH website at www.nycosh.org.
RECOVERY AND CLEAN-UP OPERATIONS ARE HAZARDOUS. Many of the workers involved in the World Trade Center recovery and clean-up operation have received safety and health training, but many other workers will be facing hazards that are unfamiliar, with the potential to cause serious illness, injury or death. The site is in a constant state of flux, with the result that new hazards can suddenly emerge. Workers and managers need to understand the existing hazards and how to minimize them as well as being alert to the possible development of new hazards.
This factsheet is for workers who are engaged in recovery efforts, as well as for those involved in the restoration of essential services and clean-up operations. All this work involves potentially unsafe conditions and exposures to hazardous materials.
ALL OF THE HAZARDS LISTED BELOW are likely to be encountered during World Trade Center recovery and clean-up operations. Anyone working at or near ground zero is more likely to encounter these hazards than someone involved in clean-up operations several blocks away, but at any location, dust and ash from the World Trade Center pose a potential health hazard.
Contaminated air poses health risks that depend on the nature and concentration of the contaminants and upon the physical condition of the exposed worker. Workers with any history of chronic conditions of the lungs or heart are at greater risk of adverse health effects from contaminated air.
Contaminants in the air, including toxic dust and chemicals, can cause serious illness or death. Dust and ash anywhere in the vicinity of the World Trade Center site is likely to contain asbestos, cement, drywall and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) combustion products.
CEMENT DUST AND DRYWALL DUST usually contain crystalline silica. Inhalation of silica dust can cause silicosis or other potentially fatal lung diseases. Cement dust can be irritating and can cause or worsen asthma and chronic bronchitis.
AIRBORNE PARTICLES OF BURNED PLASTIC, INCLUDING POLYVINYL CHLORIDE (PVC) or other plastics from insulation, conduit, furniture, etc., may cause respiratory irritation and provoke or worsen asthma and chronic bronchitis.
ASBESTOS was a major material used in the construction of the World Trade Center. That asbestos is a constituent of the dust and debris. Inhalation of asbestos fibers can result in serious or fatal diseases, including cancer. Although there is no known safe level of asbestos exposure, higher levels of exposure result in greater risk of disease.
OTHER DUSTS may cause asthma or bronchitis or other respiratory problems, such as difficulty breathing. Any dust can cause eye irritation. Some dusts can cause allergic skin reactions. If dusty work clothes are worn off the job, they can contaminate vehicles and residences.
Another concern in the World Trade Center area is the possible build-up of toxic or explosive gases from ruptured gas lines or stored chemicals. Of most concern is the presence of such gases in confined or restricted spaces.
FLAMMABLES OR EXPLOSIVES may be released from ruptured gas lines and storage containers.
CARBON MONOXIDE, a colorless, odorless gas, may be present as a byproduct of combustion (fire). Inhalation of carbon monoxide can cause a wide range of health effects, from loss of judgment to death by asphyxiation.
OXYGEN DEFICIENCY: There may not be enough oxygen present in the air to support breathing. This can result from other gases (such as carbon monoxide) replacing oxygen. Oxygen can also be used up during combustion.
Exposure to other gases can cause eye, nose, throat or lung irritation. Workers who enter confined spaces are at highest risk for these hazards.
Workers who are exposed to infected blood or other bodily fluids can become infected. For infection to take place, infected blood or body fluids must enter a workers body through the eyes, nose or mouth or through a break in the skin, such as a cut or abrasion.
UNSANITARY CONDITIONS: Workers skin and clothing may be exposed to a wide variety of toxic materials and disease organisms. Care should be taken to protect food, beverage containers and smoking materials from contamination.
Some exposure to airborne dust is inevitable, but, wherever possible, dust and ash should not be disturbed in such a way that it becomes airborne. Wetting dust and ash with water before disturbing it will prevent it from becoming suspended in the air. During clean-up operations, dust and ash should never be swept or handled when it is dry. Do not vacuum dust with any equipment that is not equipped with HEPA filters.
RESPIRATORS: A respirator is a mask worn over the mouth and nose that filters out harmful contaminants in the air such as dust or chemicals. Some respirators also provide eye protection. Any respirator that does not provide eye protection should be worn with goggles. Wherever respirators are worn, there should be an adequate quantity of respirator cleaning supplies, replacement cartridges or replacement respirators.
Respirators are designed to provide protection from specific air contaminants. If you are wearing a respirator for protection from one substance, do not assume that it provides protection from any other substance. A respirator does not provide any protection if it does not fit properly, or if the seal is compromised by dirt.
A DUST MASK IS NOT A RESPIRATOR and does not provide protection from asbestos, silica or other hazardous particulates.
RESPIRATORS FOR WORKERS AT GROUND ZERO where there may be a wide variety of airborne hazards, should be rubberized masks with screw-in particulate P-100 or R-100 HEPA cartridges (not N-100). Workers at ground zero should not wear disposable respirators (even those rated P-100 or R-100) because working conditions there are extremely rough and disposable respirator seals are not likely to stand up to the conditions. Respirator cartridges should be replaced once a shift at minimum or whenever there is an increase in the difficulty of breathing through them.
RESPIRATORS FOR WORKERS AT LEAST SEVERAL BLOCKS FROM GROUND ZERO, where dust and ash is the main air contaminant, should be rated N-100 or P-100 or R-100. Respirators with replaceable cartridges are preferable, but disposable respirators rated N-, P- or R-100 are acceptable if they can be protected from conditions that compromise the seals. Disposable respirators (or respirator cartridges) should be replaced once a shift at minimum or whenever there is an increase in the difficulty of breathing through them.
Respirators that protect from dust cannot provide protection for oxygen deficiency or flammable and toxic gases. The air in an unventilated area where toxic or flammable gases may be present should be tested before workers enter. No one who has not been trained and qualified in confined-space entry should enter an area where these hazards are present.
Goggles should be worn during all work operations for protection from irritating dust. Protective clothing should be worn so you can change out of your work clothes before returning home. Work clothes should be bagged at work and washed separately from personal laundry to prevent contamination.
For protection against bloodborne diseases, follow Universal Precautions: (1) treat all bodily fluids as if they are infected; 2) place a physical barrier (such as latex gloves, goggles or face mask) between you and the fluid; and 3) dispose of all potentially-infected materials as segregated medical waste.
When you eat, drink or smoke you may ingest any toxic materials that are on your clothing, hair or skin. If you are exposed to any toxic materials, it is essential to wash before doing anything that could result in ingesting them. If washing water is not available, moist towelettes should be used before eating. It is also essential to remove contaminated work clothing to prevent the contamination of vehicles or homes.
NYCOSH has webpages or links available on many of the specific topics mentioned here:
For a printer-friendly, Portable Document Format version of this factsheet, click here.
NOT ALL HEALTH AND SAFETY HAZARDS ARE ADDRESSED IN THIS FACTSHEET. IF YOU HAVE QUESTIONS ABOUT THESE OR ANY OTHER HAZARDS, OR ABOUT LAWS AND REGULATIONS CONCERNING OCCUPATIONAL SAFETY AND HEALTH, PLEASE CONTACT:
New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH): 212-627-3900.
Mount Sinai-Irving J. Selikoff Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine: 212-987-6043.
NYU/Bellevue Occupational & Environmental Medicine Clinic: 212-562-4572.
New York City Central Labor Council: 212-532-7575.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) at 1-800-321-OSHA (1-800-321-6742). For better service, you should be ready to give OSHA the zip code of your location. The zip code of the World Trade Center is 10048. OSHA regulations apply to private-sector employers and federal government agencies.
The Public Employee Safety and Health (PESH) bureau of the New York State Department of Labor at 516-485-4409. PESH regulations apply to agencies of New York State and local government agencies in New York State.
NYCOSH is a non-profit provider of occupational safety and health training, advocacy and information (including technical assistance and industrial hygiene consultation) to workers and unions throughout the New York metropolitan area -- with a membership consisting of over 250 union organizations and 400 individuals: union members, health and safety activists, injured workers, healthcare workers, attorneys, public health advocates, environmentalists and concerned citizens. We provide the NYCOSH Update on Safety and Health to our members and others free of charge even though it costs the organization considerable time and money to produce it. You could help by making a tax-deductible contribution of any amount. Please send your tax-deductible contribution to: New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, 275 7th Avenue, New York NY 10001, ATTN: Update. For more information, or if you have information to share, including news clips and announcements of events, or if you want to be added to our fax and/or e-mail list, or if you want membership materials, call NYCOSH: 212-627-3900 or fax us: 212-627-9812 or e-mail us: firstname.lastname@example.org. For additional information see the NYCOSH website at http://www.nycosh.org.
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NYCOSH is a union shop. Its staff is represented by the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy workers union (PACE) Local 2-149.