By David Michaels

It is time for Congress to enlist the nation’s science and policy experts to help develop a federal workers’ compensation program for 9/11 rescue, recovery, and cleanup workers. The inadequacy of state worker programs led Congress to legislate special compensation programs for uranium miners, and civilian workers in nuclear weapons facilities. We did not require the families of those killed in the terrorist attacks to rely on state workers’ compensation programs. The September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (pdf) provided more than $7 billion to families of the victims.  

Who and how much to compensate are certainly complicated issues. The state of the science on the 9/11 exposures is truly murky. More research, and more time, are needed before we can better understand the effects of breathing the toxic clouds at Ground Zero. But we’ve faced similar situations in the recent past, and Congress has legislated new compensation programs for heroic Americans who may have become sick after putting themselves in harms way while engaged in homeland security or national defense activities. Now is the time to do so for 9/11 recovery workers and their families.

The state workers’ compensation programs that theoretically cover these workers are simply not equipped to address the many difficult issues that arise almost immediately in thinking about these workers. There are tough scientific issues, and the potential disputes over causation could be monumental, since the science is not advanced. There are issues of equity: the 9/11 workers who have a federal employment relationship may be covered under the federal workers’ compensation program that is far more generous than, say, the NY State program. And many workers were volunteers. Who should cover them?

It will not be easy to design the new compensation program. There are many options, and any solution must consider issues of equity, economic efficiency, fiscal responsibility and precedent. But the 9/11 rescue, recovery, and cleanup workers deserve a program that provides swift and just compensation.

Now is the time for Congress to ask the best minds in the country to begin an effort to consider these issues, and design the program that these heroes deserve. I’d like to see Congress ask the Institute of Medicine to impanel a group of experts and hold public meetings, gather information, and recommend to the country how we can assure these workers that if they get sick, our nation will take care of them and their families.

David Michaels heads the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) and is Professor and Associate Chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.