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On The Long Road To Hurricane Sandy Recovery

One OSHA official recounts professional and personal steps in Sandy recovery.

Sandy recovery work is ongoing in New York and points beyond — even two-and-a-half months after the storm has come and gone.

“There’s still much work to be done,” said Bob Stewart, an assistant area director for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The 23-year veteran of the agency said his job is to keep workers in Sandy-impacted areas safe, and his goal is to prevent hazards that would send recovery workers to the recovery room.

As recovery work continues in storm-ravaged communities like Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn or the Rockaways in Queens, and on parts of Long Island, OSHA inspectors have visited businesses, homes and other work sites damaged by Sandy. There are still countless home and business owners with serious mold and other damage to their structures who are desperate for help and turning to contractors and workers for necessary repairs and remediation. Countless day laborers have signed on the dotted line for such work.

Stewart said there have been some instances when contractors working for businesses and homeowners have, either knowingly or unknowingly, skirted safety procedures. OSHA’s response has included a broad program of safety training and education, showing up where workers are gathered or working and demonstrating the proper use of ventilation masks, fall protection and other safety precautions.  And when necessary, inspecting and citing those employers whose refusal to utilize required safeguards places their employees at risk.

Last week, Stewart and OSHA inspectors visited day laborers gathered outside a home improvement superstore in Brooklyn’s fabled Coney Island neighborhood — not far from where he was born or from where he now lives. He said many of those workers were Hispanic and are right at the heart of Sandy recovery work across his jurisdiction of Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan.

“Statistically, Hispanics die more on the job than any other workers in New York, and we go to where the day laborers are and share lifesaving information with them and conduct training,” said Stewart, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on why Latin Americans died on the job more than any other ethnic group in the boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan between 1995 and 2004.

“One of our OSHA workers speaks Spanish and he conducted interviews with the workers to determine their knowledge of safe-recovery-work practices,” Stewart said, stressing that proper use of masks, eye and fall protection, were high on the list.

Stewart said he more than sympathizes with homeowners and businesses affected by Sandy: He shares their pain. In his case, he had to swim for his life — in his own home.

On the night that Sandy struck, Stewart and his wife were removing clothing and other items from basement storage to the first floor to keep everything dry.

“The water was about one-foot high and I thought that would be as high as it would go,” Stewart recalled. “The electricity was already out and I was holding a flashlight — just then the basement door burst open and the water level went over our heads.”

Stewart said that each day when he speaks to a homeowner dealing with ongoing Sandy recovery work, he also speaks from his own experience on the night of Oct. 29.

“My wife screamed ‘get out.’ We dropped our lights…And we both swam to the center staircase so we could climb out to the first floor,” Stewart said.

Stewart, whose house is near the beach, was stranded for several days before he was able to return to work and the professional challenges posed by the lingering effects of the super storm.

OSHA’s major responsibility in Sandy’s aftermath is ensuring that workers and employers know the hazards associated with storm recovery work and the necessary safeguards to protect themselves against injury and illness. To date, OSHA has conducted more than 4,500 briefings and safety interventions, reaching more than 60,000 workers and employers performing recovery work in Sandy-impacted areas.

The work continues.

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For more information visit: http://www.osha.gov/sandy/index.html

Ted Fitzgerald, Office of Public Affairs, U.S. Dept. of Labor, contributed to this report.

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