This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. At the time I was the director of OSHA’s Manhattan Area Office, which was located in No. 6 World Trade Center.
I was not in the office when the planes hit – I was out in Queens giving a talk on safety and health. The OSHA staff were evacuated and made their way to the regional office about a mile away. It was clear this was an incredibly complex event that would necessitate a massive response. That response involved traditional emergency responders (police, fire, EMS) as well as skilled support personnel, such as construction workers. Some of the OSHA Manhattan staff had been involved in the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center, so they had some experience with the potential hazards, though on a much smaller scale.
Coordinating with other agencies, OSHA began three distinct worker safety and health health missions: health risk assessment (air sampling and analysis), distribution of personal protective equipment (primarily respirators), and safety monitoring. These tasks continued around the clock for the next 10 months involving over 1,000 federal OSHA staff, as well as our state plan partners and consultation projects.
The lessons we learned from that response have been incorporated into the way we now do business. Within a decade, OSHA also had significant responses to Hurricane Katrina and the BP / Deepwater Horizon Gulf Oil spill. Now, OSHA staff regularly support workers responding to both natural and man-made calamities such as hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, chemical plant explosions and structural collapses. And of course we are currently in year two of the COVID-19 global pandemic. In each case, we look to use the right tool – which could be technical support to emergency responders, investigating the cause of the incident, outreach to workers and employers, conducting inspections, or a combination of these strategies.
Now, when an unexpected emergency arises, or when specialized expertise and knowledge is needed, OSHA is ready. We frequently hear the phrase “Never Forget” – and I am an ardent believer in that. We honor the memory of those we lost on Sept. 11 and its aftermath by continuing to improve workplace safety and health, and making sure all workers come home safe at the end of their shift.
Richard Mendelson is the regional administrator for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in New York. Follow OSHA on Twitter at @OSHA_DOL.