Disaster Preparedness:

Better Planning Would Improve OSHA's Efforts to Protect Workers' Safety and Health in Disasters

GAO-07-193: Published: Mar 28, 2007. Publicly Released: Mar 28, 2007.

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Concerns about the safety and health of workers involved in the response to Hurricane Katrina included their exposure to contaminated floodwaters and injuries from working around debris. The Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is responsible for coordinating federal efforts to protect the safety and health of workers involved in the response to large national disasters. Under the Comptroller General's authority, GAO initiated a number of Katrina-related reviews. For this review, GAO examined (1) what is known about the number of response and recovery workers deployed to the Gulf Coast in response to Hurricane Katrina; (2) the extent to which OSHA tracked injuries and illnesses sustained by these workers; and (3) how well OSHA met the safety and health needs of workers. To address these issues, GAO reviewed reports; analyzed data; interviewed federal, state, and local officials; and conducted site visits.

No one, including OSHA,was responsible for collecting information on the total number of response and recovery workers deployed to the Gulf Coast in response to Hurricane Katrina and no one collected it, but 10 federal agencies provided estimates showing that, on October 1, 2005, the agencies had about 49,000 federal workers in the Gulf Coast area. In addition, six of these agencies estimated that their contractors had about 5,100 workers in the area on December 1, 2005, but the other four either did not track the number of workers employed by their contractors or did not employ contractors. Although OSHA was responsible for tracking the injuries and illnesses that federal response and recovery workers sustained during the response to Hurricane Katrina, the agency's efforts to collect it were delayed and it was unable to collect usable information. According to OSHA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) must assign and fund specific responsibilities for each disaster. However, FEMA did not direct OSHA to collect injury and illness data until more than 3 weeks after the hurricane struck. OSHA attempted to collect the data, but the information federal agencies provided were incomplete and unreliable. OSHA and other agencies did track fatalities. They reported nine worker fatalities attributed to work-related accidents: three employees of federal contractors and six nonfederal workers or volunteers. OSHA provided assistance to many response and recovery workers who responded to Hurricane Katrina, but not all workers' safety and health needs were met. OSHA quickly established operations in the Gulf area; intervened in thousands of potentially hazardous situations; and assessed air, water, soil, and noise hazards at many work sites. However, disagreements between OSHA and FEMA about which agency was in charge of providing safety and health assistance to federal agencies and workers and how it would be provided delayed some of OSHA's efforts. Also, some agencies' lack of awareness about the role OSHA plays in a disaster further hindered its ability to provide assistance. As a result, OSHA did not fully meet workers' safety and health needs, particularly their need for training and protective equipment. OSHA also did not coordinate with the Department of Health and Human Services to ensure that workers had needed mental health services, and OSHA was not assigned responsibility for coordinating the needs of nonfederal workers, including state and local agency workers; many immigrants; and volunteers.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: In order to improve the ability to meet workers' safety and health needs in the event of a future disaster, the Secretaries of the Departments of Labor and Homeland Security should direct the Administrators of OSHA and FEMA to clearly define the criteria to be used in deciding when OSHA will be responsible for carrying out its duties under the Worker Safety and Health Support Annex to the National Response Plan, including the types and magnitude of disasters in which OSHA will be involved.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Progress has been made on this recommendation. In February 2008, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reported sending new standard operating procedures (SOP) and a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for approval that would clarify a number of items, including the criteria for how and when OSHA should be activated to implement the Worker Safety and Health Support Annex (Annex) and the agencies' respective roles. OSHA also reported that both agencies agreed to consult when OSHA needs to implement the Annex and discuss how it should be implemented. In addition, OSHA and FEMA finalized pre-scripted mission assignments to expedite activation of the Annex and these mission assignments have been used during national-level exercises. FEMA is now revising the National Response Framework (NRF) and Annex, so progress on the MOUs and SOPs has been temporarily delayed.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the ability to meet workers' safety and health needs in the event of a future disaster, the Secretaries of the Departments of Labor and Homeland Security should direct the Administrators of OSHA and FEMA to clearly define the criteria to be used in deciding when OSHA will be responsible for carrying out its duties under the Worker Safety and Health Support Annex to the National Response Plan, including the types and magnitude of disasters in which OSHA will be involved.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In February 2008, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reported sending new standard operating procedures (SOPs) and a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for approval that would clarify a number of items, including the criteria for how and when OSHA should be activated to implement the Worker Safety and Health Support Annex (Annex) and the agencies' respective roles. OSHA also reported that both agencies agreed to consult when OSHA needs to implement the Annex and discuss how it should be implemented. In 2010, FEMA and OSHA made more progress on this recommendation by finalizing pre-scripted mission assignments to expedite activation of the Annex. These mission assignments have been used during national-level exercises. FEMA are revising the National Response Framework (NRF) and Annex, tabling the completion of the MOU and SOP for now.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the ability to meet workers' safety and health needs in the event of a future disaster, the Secretaries of the Departments of Labor and Homeland Security should direct the Administrators of OSHA and FEMA to clearly define OSHA's and FEMA's roles under the Worker Safety and Health Support Annex, including resolving the issue of how the need for long-term medical monitoring of workers involved in the response to future disasters will be met.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2008, OSHA reported revising the Worker Safety and Health Support Annex provided in the new National Response Framework (NRF) to clarify OSHA's and FEMA's roles and responsibilities in disaster response and recovery. In 2011, FEMA and OSHA pre-scripted mission assignments that have been used during national-level exercises although a formal MOU and SOP expected to further clarify each agency's roles and responsibilities have not been completed due to pending revisions to the National Response Framework (NRF) and Annex. During this process, OSHA is bringing together all relevant federal agencies to revise the Worker Safety and health Support Annex. During the revision process, OSHA is also addressing GAO recommendations that go beyond FEMA and OSHA, such as clarifying the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health's (NIOSH) role for long-term medical monitoring of response and recovery workers. Any additional guidance, such as SOPs, will be pursued after the fundamental roles of all federal agencies are established during the National Response Framework (NRF) revision process.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the ability to meet workers' safety and health needs in the event of a future disaster, the Secretaries of the Departments of Labor and Homeland Security should direct the Administrators of OSHA and FEMA to clearly define OSHA's and FEMA's roles under the Worker Safety and Health Support Annex, including resolving the issue of how the need for long-term medical monitoring of workers involved in the response to future disasters will be met.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2008, OSHA reported revising the Worker Safety and Health Support Annex (Annex) provided in the new National Response Framework (NRF) to clarify OSHA's and FEMA's roles and responsibilities in disaster response and recovery. In February 2008, OSHA reported sending new standard operating procedures (SOPs) and a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for approval that would clarify a number of items, including the criteria for how and when OSHA should be activated to implement the Annex and the agencies' respective roles. OSHA also reported that both agencies agreed to consult on when and how the Annex should be implemented. In 2011, FEMA and OSHA pre-scripted mission assignments that were used during national-level exercises, although a formal MOU and SOP expected to further clarify each agency's roles and responsibilities have not been completed as revisions are being made to the National Response Framework (NRF) and Annex. During the NRF revision process, OSHA is bringing together all relevant federal agencies to revise the Annex, and addressing GAO recommendations that go beyond FEMA and OSHA, such as clarifying the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health's role for long-term medical monitoring of response and recovery workers. Any additional guidance, such as SOP's will be pursued after the fundamental roles of all federal agencies are established during the NRF revision process.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the ability to meet workers' safety and health needs in the event of a future disaster, the Secretaries of the Departments of Labor and Homeland Security should direct the Administrators of OSHA and FEMA to proactively work to provide information to federal, state, and local agencies about OSHA's role in a disaster and the assistance it can provide under the Worker Safety and Health Support Annex, including seeking opportunities for OSHA to participate in emergency preparedness exercises at federal, state, and local levels.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2008, OSHA reported that the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) under development with FEMA will commit DHS to use its publications and announcements to provide information on the importance of responder safety and health and the resources available. In the MOU, FEMA agreed to "contribute to the awareness of DOL-OSHA's role in worker safety and health within emergency management: 1. Reference DOL/OSHA in DHS/FEMA publications and announcements. 2. Encourage State, territorial, local, and tribal emergency management agencies to act collaboratively with their State Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) counterparts. 3. Work with DOL/OSHA to ensure that worker safety and health considerations are included in exercise scenarios. 4. Develop under the National Incident Management System (NIMS) Integration Center to support the Safety Officer(s) position in ICS,and other worker safety and health management systems under the NIMS. 5. Engage in joint projects with DOL/OSHA that promote worker safety and health within emergency management." FEMA signed the MOU in 2008. Although OSHA did not sign the MOU, FEMA has acted in accordance with the MOU. For example, FEMA invited OSHA to co-chair the Environmental Safety and Health Committee, a part of FEMA's Whole Community Program (a significant program led by the Administrator of FEMA to assess gaps in federal assets for a response to a worst case-type scenario).

    Recommendation: In order to improve the ability to meet workers' safety and health needs in the event of a future disaster, the Secretaries of the Departments of Labor and Homeland Security should direct the Administrators of OSHA and FEMA to proactively work to provide information to federal, state, and local agencies about OSHA's role in a disaster and the assistance it can provide under the Worker Safety and Health Support Annex, including seeking opportunities for OSHA to participate in emergency preparedness exercises at federal, state, and local levels.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2008, OSHA reported that the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) under development with FEMA will commit DHS to use its publications and announcements to provide information on the importance of responder safety and health and the resources available. Although MOUs have not been completed because of pending revisions to the NRF and Annex, in 2011, OSHA reported participating in national and regional disaster response training and exercises, and working with state emergency management offices and FEMA's Regional Response Coordination Centers. For example, OSHA reported participating in several national response exercises, including: Spills of National Significance (2007), Top Officials 4 (2007), the National Level Exercise NLE 2-08, Eagle Horizon (2008), and National Level Exercise 2010 (where OSHA received a mission assignment). More recently, OSHA has taken other steps to familiarize the response community to its role during a disaster. For example, the agency: 1) developed and distributed a Quick Card protecting Worker Safety and Health Under the National Response Framework that explains the coordination of responder safety and health under the NRF; 2) serves as a member of the Emergency Support Function Leaders Group and Regional Interagency Response Committees (RISC) to further highlight the importance of worker safety and health; 3) worked with FEMA to co-chair the Environmental Safety and Health Center of Gravity as part of FEMA's Whole Community Program (a significant program led by the FEMA Administrator to assess gaps in federal assets for a response to a worst case-type scenario); and 4) provided assistance during the response to disasters in Missouri (floods) and Massachusetts (tornado). OSHA reports that it will continue to take every opportunity to advance the recognition of the importance for response and recovery worker safety and health and make the response community aware of the resources available through the Worker Safety and Health Annex of the National Response Framework.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Department of Labor should direct OSHA to establish a process for collecting data on injuries and illnesses sustained by workers who respond to disasters as defined in the Worker Safety and Health Support Annex to the National Response Plan, such as requiring employers to record injuries and illnesses on logs maintained at each disaster work site and periodically submit them to OSHA during the response.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2008, OSHA reported establishing a subcommittee to develop an injury and illness data collection system for workers directly covered by federal agencies that respond to disasters. The subcommittee agreed to build a system based on the existing injury and illness record keeping forms (OSHA forms 300 and 301) and provide definitions to the agencies involved for them to use in collecting and compiling injury and illness data sustained by workers who respond to disasters. In addition, OSHA reported discussing this issue with the coordinating agencies about tabulating data at the conclusion of each disaster, and comparing this information to the national data collected by BLS on injuries and illnesses to identify trends unique to disaster recovery. In 2011, OSHA reported that it had established through the Worker Safety and Health Coordinating Committee, that the representative support agencies will receive reports of injuries and illnesses of employees and contractors of their agencies. The representatives will report these cases through the Coordinating Committee and/or Joint Field Office's Interagency Safety and Health Committee. Further, OSHA reported that during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil spill response, NIOSH was able to collect injury and illness reports from the private company and contractors involved in the clean up efforts. As part of the process to revise the Worker Safety and Health Support Annex, OSHA is working with FEMA, NIOSH, and other relevant agencies to determine ways to collect injury and illness data from other federal sources.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Department of Labor should direct OSHA to use the information collected on injuries and illnesses to identify safety and health hazards and analyze injury and illness trends.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2008, OSHA reported that, during a disaster response, the agency focuses on collecting and sharing information about hazards to which responders and recovery workers may be exposed. At the conclusion of each incident, OSHA said it will tabulate data collected and make compare it to the national data collected by BLS on workers' injuries and illnesses to identify trends unique to disaster recovery efforts. This information also will be used to target areas that need attention in future disaster response efforts. OSHA reported working on the National Response Framework (NRF) Worker Safety and Health Coordination Committee to develop language requiring agencies and their contractors to implement safety and health management programs and to report injury and illness data during disaster response efforts. In 2011, OSHA reported that it had established through the Worker Safety and Health Coordinating Committee that representatives of the support agencies will receive reports of their employees' and contractors' injuries and illnesses. Agency representatives will report these cases through the Coordinating Committee and/or Joint Field Office's Interagency Safety and Health Committee. OSHA also reported that NIOSH is leading a program to develop an Emergency Responder Health Monitoring and Surveillance (ERHMS) system. ERHMS is a toolkit for obtaining the critical data to track the effectiveness of an occupational safety and health management system during emergency responses. In addition, during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon response, NIOSH was able to collect injury and illness reports on BP employees and its contractors involved in the cleanup. OSHA does not have processes for collecting, analyzing and reporting illnesses and injuries during disasters. Through the NRF revision process, OSHA will clarify the roles of the various agencies to collect injury and illness data and analyze trends.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Department of Labor should direct OSHA to develop, implement, and monitor an incident personal protective equipment program as defined in the Worker Safety and Health Support Annex.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2008, OSHA reported the Worker Safety and Health Annex had been revised to clarify OSHA's role in regard to providing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to workers involved in responding to disasters and conducting recovery work. The agency noted that, as part of its responsibilities under the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act, each employer is required to provide needed PPE for its staff. To assist employers during a disaster response effort, OSHA develops an incident-wide Health and Safety Plan (HASP) that provides a guide for employers in developing their own worksite-specific HASPs. The employers' own worksite specific HASPs should include an assessment of appropriate PPE, training, and maintenance for the operations in which they are engaged. In addition, OSHA has enhanced the ability for employers to address PPE needs in their emergency preparedness activities by making materials on hazard mitigation, including appropriate PPE, available on its website.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the ability to meet workers' needs for mental health services in the event of a future disaster, the Secretaries of the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services should develop a plan for coordinating and providing mental health services to response and recovery workers as described in the Worker Safety and Health Support Annex to the National Response Plan.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: HHS generally agreed with this recommendation but did not indicate how it planned to address it. The agency noted that there is a clear public health value that underscores GAO's recommendation to clarify the role of federal agencies regarding medical monitoring for response workers. In 2008, the Department of Labor (DOL) reported that HHS and DOL agreed that neither agency has the resources to provide onsite counseling during a disaster response effort, nor is there an expectation that these services would be made available through the Annex. As of August 2011, HHS provided no update on its actions.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the ability to meet workers' needs for mental health services in the event of a future disaster, the Secretaries of the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services should develop a plan for coordinating and providing mental health services to response and recovery workers as described in the Worker Safety and Health Support Annex to the National Response Plan.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2008, OSHA initially reported that the agency does not have the relevant expertise in providing mental health services to implement this recommendation. Further, DOL and HHS agreed that neither has the resources to provide onsite counseling during a disaster response effort, nor do agency officials believe that there is an expectation that these services would be made available through the Annex. However, OSHA stated that it would include in its incident-wide Health and Safety Plan (HASP) a recommendation that employers address employees' mental health needs during disaster response efforts. In addition, OSHA developed psychological resiliency materials following the response to Hurricane Katrina and made these materials available to employers on its website. In 2011, OSHA reported that it understood the importance of mental health services during emergency response, including the need for fatigue management. Although OSHA acknowledged the need for such services, the agency reported that it does not have the expertise and authority to ensure that on-site counseling services are provided and follow-up services are assessed and provided. As a result, OSHA revised its plan: the Worker Safety and Health Support Annex under the National Response Framework now reads that OSHA may be tasked with "providing technical assistance and support for maintenance of psychological resiliency of response and recovery workers."

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