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Union Workers: Safe, Efficient ... Cleanup at the
World Trade Center Site:

Lessons Learned
Union Workers: Safe, Efficient ...


UE News, June, 2002 David Kotelchuck

On May 30, 2002, amid pomp and ceremonies, with bagpipes blowing, the cleanup of the World Trade Center site in New York City was officially brought to an end. This came eight and a half months after the terrible bombings there on September 11, 2001, which took over 3,000 human lives, including hundreds at the Pentagon and on the four planes that were crashed.

This is a good time for us as union members and Americans to look back on what has happened since 9/11, and see what we have learned from this overwhelming experience (as well as what we have not, or just don’t know yet). Below are one union person’s thoughts on what we have learned –— not the only lessons that could or should be drawn.


Union workers are efficient workers. Since 9/11, union members, in and out of uniform, have worked day and night at this site, first to rescue the living and then to clean up the rubble. Within a few weeks after the many good and courageous volunteers from across the U.S. were sent back home with our grateful thanks, this became entirely a union worksite.

When the site was first surveyed after the collapse, City authorities estimated that it would take two to three years to clear. That’s according to Robert Adams, director of health and safety for the NYC Department of Design and Construction, lead supervising agency for the site. In the end it took site workers only eight and a half months for the cleanup.

In the process they removed 1.8 million tons of steel beams and rubble from the site. They did this while fighting fires of up to 1,500 degrees F in the pile, which were not put out until December. Also, the cleanup was initially estimated to cost several billion dollars; the actual cost now appears closer to a third or a quarter of that, at about $700 million, according to Adams.

So when employers complain at your next contract negotiations or in our next organizing drive that union labor costs too much, just point out the WTC experience. Union members do their jobs efficiently and well, and get it right the first time, provided, of course, that our employers give us the necessary tools and resources.

Union workers are safe workers. This was the largest uncontrolled building cleanup and rehabilitation site in U. S. history. Despite this, not a single worker’s life was lost during the cleanup operations. And only 35 serious injuries were recorded, the worst one being a broken hand bone.

As a result, the injury rate at the site was only 2.3 lost-time injuries per 100 full-time workers, about half the average lost-time injury rate of 4.3 at other U.S. construction sites, according to federal OSHA Director, John Henshaw. (And remember most construction sites are either building or repair sites, inherently less dangerous than the WTC site.)

This experience shows us that we can dramatically reduce injuries in U.S. workplaces. Federal OSHA Director Henshaw goes around the country these days telling us that these WTC results show the value of labor-management-government cooperation. I disagree. What was new at the WTC site was not working together — that’s done in many plants and worksites, often with very little to show for it in terms of reducing the injury rates. What’s new at WTC is that for the first time in recent memory, every single group involved with the cleanup — unions, management, government agencies — was really committed to protecting the health and safety of each and every worker on the job. As worksite people have said time and again, "Too many people have died at this site already; we don’t want any more to die now."

Backing up this commitment, 30 to 40 people were assigned to work full-time on health and safety during the 24/7 operations — union health and safety reps, construction supervisors, federal, state and city inspectors, and outside health and safety professionals. These persons were then given the authority and resources to do their job, "whatever it costs." All site workers received classroom and on-the-job health and safety training.


Many hundreds, perhaps several thousand, WTC site workers currently are suffering from a respiratory condition, often called "World Trade Center Cough." Will it subside among most or all of its victims? And if so, when? We don’t know yet. The cough appears to come from the pulverized, large-particle concrete dust created when the buildings collapsed. If so, doctors expect the symptoms to subside in coming months and most affected workers to recover.

And it may be 20 years or more before we know how many, if any, excess cancer deaths this will cause if cancer deaths will result from the asbestos dust inhaled at and near the WTC site.

The WTC experience showed us we don’t have any consistent standards. We need them urgently.

OSHA and EPA need to take greater responsibility in enforcing standards and protecting the public near but outside the immediate disaster zone. The delays by EPA in getting help to the residents of buildings near the WTC site, and by OSHA in enforcing its standards for immigrant cleanup workers near the WTC site, were serious lapses by these agencies.

OSHA and other health and safety agencies need to enforce their regulations against employers who just don’t give a damn.

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