When workers are exposed to hazardous substances on the job, it can take years for symptoms to appear – and even longer to fight for treatment and compensation (a fight that many workers lose). Recently, news stories have highlighted workers from Ground Zero and from nuclear weapons facilities who are struggling to get help with health problems ranging from respiratory illnesses to cancer.

Ground zero workers
Police officer Cesar Borja worked 14-hour days in the ruins of the World Trade Center in the weeks following September 11, 2001. Last month, he succumbed to lung disease at the age of 52. His son, Cesar Borja Jr., met with President Bush last week to urge him to expand health services for Ground Zero workers who are still struggling with illnesses.

When Bush made a trip to Wall Street last week, worker health advocates gathered and held a news conference. They want the government to commit to a long-term plan for monitoring the health of those who worked or lived near Ground Zero and for treating related illnesses. The Bush administration has promised $25 million more to fund such programs ($75 million is already being spent), but advocates worry that it won’t be enough for the long-term care that’s likely to be needed.

The city of New York is also in the spotlight. Jean Marie DeBiase has filed a wrongful death claim against the city following her husband’s death from pulmonary fibrosis. Mark DeBiase, who was 41 years old, was a utility repairman who worked to restore cell phone service at Ground Zero. Papers filed by DeBiase’s lawyer state that the city failed to provide DeBiase with protective gear to keep him from breathing in toxic air and dust during the weeks that he toiled at Ground Zero and the Fresh Kills landfill.

Nuclear industry workers
When the nuclear industry ramped up during the Cold War, thousands of workers got jobs in facilities that were producing and testing nuclear weapons. Many of them also got heavy doses of radiation and chemical exposure. In 2000, the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program (EEOICP) Act set up a system for compensating employees who suffered illnesses related to their work in nuclear weapons facilities.

One way for workers (or their surviving family members) can receive compensation is to have all the employees from a particular facility receive “special exposure cohort” status.  Former workers and their survivors from the Fernald uranium foundry in Cincinnati are fighting to get that status, because they’ve had a hard time getting the medical records and exposure history that could otherwise demonstrate that workers were exposed to enough radiation that it was likely to have caused their cancers. (The fact that many employees’ work was top secret has complicated an already difficult process.)

In Miamisburg, Ohio, federal officials have denied some workers compensation based on the “site profile” that details the Mound Plant’s hazards – but a new independent audit has found some severe flaws in that profile. In Joliet, Illinois, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is holding hearings and reconsidering its recommendation that workers from the Blockson Chemical Plant not be awarded special exposure status. Nearly 300 claims from former uranium-exposed workers and their survivors are at stake.

Other Occupational Health News
Workers at the U.S. Capitol have asked NIOSH to investigate hazards from asbestos and falling slabs of concrete in the tunnels under the Capitol complex.

Colorado firefighters are asking for legislation that would make it easier to them for get compensation if they fall ill with cancer likely to be related to their inhalation of carcinogenic fumes while working.

A new analysis of studies, published in the American Journal of Public Health, confirms the association between passive smoke in the workplace and an increased risk of lung cancer.

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