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Immigrant Workers Facing Health Problems From Ground Zero Cleanup

by Katherine Stapp

EPA Covered Up Deadly Ground Zero Air Problems
(IPS) NEW YORK -- Speaking in Spanish, a young woman with dark braided hair recalled how she crawled on her hands and knees through air conditioning ducts to clean the thick dust that had settled there. Her boss repeatedly ordered her into the shafts because she was "the best" at the job.

Others were down in the smoldering hole at Ground Zero, handling the asbestos, silica, mercury, heavy metals and poisonous combustion by-products that coated the rubble.

More than two years after hijacked planes smashed into the World Trade Center, unleashing a toxic cloud of dust and debris that blanketed Lower Manhattan, hundreds of day laborers hired to clean up the mess are still suffering from severe breathing problems, skin rashes, nausea, depression and anxiety.

At a recent workshop hosted by the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, none of the 25 workers in attendance said they had been warned by their employers that the work was dangerous.

Some who had been given face masks or respirators by labor groups were told to remove them, most likely to keep their co-workers from asking for similar protective equipment.

On average, they earned about $60 a day. In a bitter irony, one worker produced a pay-check from her employer that bore the slogan "Safety is No Accident."

Now, a coalition of labor and immigrants' rights groups is racing against time to help the laborers file claims for workers compensation, a state-run programme that provides medical treatment and cash benefits for workers injured on the job -- regardless of their legal status.

Workers have only two years after they first become aware of their injury to file a claim, and advocates say the clock is ticking.

"These were the invisible workers behind the scenes making sure the offices and buildings were clean so people could go back to work and get back to their lives," said Beverly Tillery, of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH).

"Unfortunately, they are the group that's suffering along with everyone else but no one is paying attention to their needs."

"Most if not all of the immigrant workers who were cleaning these buildings don't have health insurance, and workers compensation is the only way they'll get ongoing medical treatment for the illnesses they suffered at Ground Zero," she added in an interview.

"But it can be very difficult to manoeuvre, and without real assistance and support they'll get swallowed up by the system."

As a first step, many of the workers are being examined by doctors at the Mount Sinai Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine in Manhattan, which has been given funding to screen workers involved in the clean-up and recovery efforts.

Spanish-language workshops run by a coalition of New York-based advocacy groups then show the workers how to fill out their claim forms, line by line.

Health problems among all workers who spent time near the disaster site are widespread.

Preliminary data released by Mount Sinai found that some 80 percent of emergency responders reported at least one respiratory symptom attributable to the aftermath of Sept. 11, including sore throat, chest tightness, cough and wheezing. One-half were still having problems one year after the attacks.

Of about 150 day workers examined at Mount Sinai, about three-quarters are suffering from upper airway diseases, says Dr. Rafael de la Hoz, who has been treating the workers.

Others report aggravated asthma or bronchial disease, back and musculo-skeletal pain, and psychological problems like post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Basically none were given protection during the clean-up.

"We are still seeing the effects two years after the episode, so these are definitely long-term problems," de la Hoz told IPS.

"Other diseases can take a longer time frame to manifest. Cancer-causing agents, for example, may not cause illness for five to 10 years."

NYCOSH and The Latin American Workers Project are now spearheading efforts to locate and assist day laborers who worked in the clean-up, mostly of hundreds of surrounding buildings in the financial district.

Such workers are hired by the hour or day, usually from designated spots on street corners.

A mobile clinic set up at Ground Zero in January and February 2002 saw 416 laborers, most of them from Colombia and Ecuador.

Workers Project Executive Director Oscar Paredes told IPS that some workers are now homeless, having lost everything because they were too sick to work.

"A lot of people don't know about their rights," he said. "They are just now starting to contact us about their health problems."

"We know that this type of sickness, especially in terms of asbestos exposure, could last for the rest of their lives. I'm optimistic about the fight we have ahead of us, but it can take years to get benefits."

The Latin American Worker's Project has documented more than 600 day laborers who helped in the clean-up. Combined with the numbers cited by other community organizations, Paredes says there are probably about 3,000 workers in need of assistance.

He added that the city and the federal government also hold responsibility for minimizing the dangers posed by airborne toxins at the time, and for falsely reassuring the public that the air was safe to breathe.

According to de la Hoz, "there was a big rush to bring business back to the World Trade Center; it was a massive around-the-clock operation. And there was a downplaying of the risks involved".

"Companies were profiting from the operation and wanted to the job as quickly as possible without regard to protecting the health and safety of the workers," he added.

"An unfortunate confluence of factors conspired to undermine workers' health, especially the segment of the population that didn't have access to safety training or equipment."

The state attorney general's office was reportedly investigating companies involved in the clean-up for possible labor violations, but the office refuses to comment.

Studies are ongoing into the long-term and immediate health effects of Sep. 11. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences just allocated more than nine million dollars to continue basic research and to expand worker training for disaster preparedness.

But many say the bigger problem is the vulnerability to abuse of day laborers around the country, in part because most lack legal immigration status.

The National Employment Law Project notes that day laborers have a higher rate of workplace injuries and fatalities, are subjected to pervasive wage and hour violations, and lack access to social and legal services that could help them enforce their workplace rights.

Luis Gutierrez, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives from Illinois state, is fighting to get a hearing for the Day Labour Fairness and Protection Act, a proposed federal law that expands and protects the workplace rights of day laborers and other temporary workers.

The act was first introduced two years ago but was killed in committee. Gutierrez reintroduced it in August, and says he will continue doing so until he gets a hearing.

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Albion Monitor October 30, 2003 (

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