A Toxic Fog of Complacency…

Portside Date:
Author: Bob Hennelly
Date of source:

This past week, officials appeared to be caught very much by surprise by the toxic plume which left New York City’s air the unhealthiest on the planet. The Canadian wildfires that were the source of the major public health threat had been making headlines north of the border for weeks but were not on the radar of local emergency managers until the plume was upon them.

No, it wasn’t 9/11, but the power structure was every bit as clueless with a fractured response.

Last week, as sporting events and outdoor cultural events were canceled in New York City, for many essential workers, just like during the pandemic, it was just another day at work, despite the inherent risks of exerting themselves in some of the worst air on the planet that had been brewing north of the border for weeks.

And just as with COVID over three years ago, officials didn’t really seem clued in about the very real health implications for the essential workforce including the millions of these workers with serious pre-existing conditions.

In New York State’s June 6 Air Quality Advisory issued by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the State Department of Health (DOH) for the Long Island, New York City Metro, Lower Hudson Valley, Upper Hudson Valley, Adirondacks, Eastern Lake Ontario, and Central New York regions there was no reference to what the course of action should be for employers with employees that would have to be out in the toxic soup.

It was as if the essential plantation workforce was invisible-- a vast army with willing arms and legs that would keep the universal lazy Susan turning so that we were sure to get our mail and our monthly Amazon allotment at the front door.

“Exposure can cause short-term health effects such as irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat, coughing, sneezing, runny nose, and shortness of breath,” the state’s advisory warned. “Exposure to elevated levels of fine particulate matter can also worsen medical conditions such as asthma and heart disease. People with heart or breathing problems, and children and the elderly may be particularly sensitive to PM 2.5.”

The advisory went on to offer several ways “to reduce exposure are to minimize outdoor and indoor sources and avoid strenuous activities in areas where fine particle concentrations are high” like using mass transit instead of driving, turn off all lights and electrical appliances in unoccupied areas, and reduce or eliminate outdoor burning and attempt to minimize indoor sources of PM 2.5 such as smoking.

No mention of calling out from your job if you were part of that unfortunate cohort working outdoors while having a pre-existing condition that would make you even more susceptible to the hazardous air.


Charlene Obernauer, executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, told Work-Bites that even some union truck drivers where working without the proper PPE during the smog alert when officials were saying the public should shelter indoors.

“Everything that was put out was about going indoors but what if your work was outdoors?” Obernauer asked. “And we are not even scratching the surface of what the non-union workforce is experiencing on the job. This is exactly the same group of people that responded throughout the pandemic who were now working outside without protection and without any information about what they should be doing, how to stay safe and it’s the same issue with air quality while not having access to the proper PPE.” 

Obernauer continued. “Nobody talks about the fact that an N-95 doesn’t cover wildfires—there not adequate for all workers that might require a higher level of respiratory protection—a half face or full-face air purifying respirators, even powered air purifying respirators like we were recommending for healthcare staff during the pandemic.”

NYCOSH’s executive director said that even as workers face the occupational health fallout from the climate crisis, over the last ten years “a lot of labor unions have shut down their health and safety departments…. We need to scale up. We imagine this is going to be happening more frequently. We need to get our act together as a city and as a state.”

Obernauer suggests that in the era of these kinds of large-scale atmospheric climate events government needs to be nimbler and forward deploy resources with community groups that are already on the ground. “When disaster hits too often the level of preparedness is just not there and that’s why we need inter-agency collaboration,” Obernauer said.

Joshua Freeman is a noted labor historian and author as well as a professor emeritus with CUNY’s School of Labor and Urban Studies. Freeman told Work-Bites “that without a union, including essential workers have no recourse when their employer tells them they have got to do this or that even if they believe it is endangering their health.” 

“In an unusual situation like we are facing right now with the smoke from Canada unionized workers have the advantage of having their union advocate to help them perform their job in a way that is less dangerous than the individual worker who can’t do anything except for taking the chance of being fired for not taking the chance of not doing what their boss has ordered them to do,” Freeman said.  

But with actual union density down from 35 percent in the 1950s to just around 10 percent today, non-union employers “don’t necessarily feel they have to match” the health and safety standards set by the unions Freeman observed.

To its credit New York City Department of Citywide Administrative Services, which overseas workplace health safety issues for the city’s 300,000 plus civil servants, did generate detailed guidance for city agencies on how to handle the air quality emergency and reduce the risk to workers. DCAS advised that workers that had to work outdoors should have access to a high-quality mask while offering employees the option to work remotely or take the day off.


Joe Puleo is president of DC 37’s Local 983 which represents over 4,000 mostly blue-collar workers who work for multiple city agencies like the Parks Department and the Department of Transportation.

“DCAS issued these requirements, but it didn’t get down to all of the agencies and the number one agency that did not know anything about it was the Department of Transportation and I have about 1,000 highway guys that repair the roadways and they did not get any instructions,” Puleo said. “We had to make phone calls back and forth and as a result of us notifying the agency of what they should have known we were able to make sure everybody knew had to proceed. It was a mess. There’s still a problem when it comes to emergencies and how we are relaying the communication.”

The city’s DOT did not respond to an email query.

Puleo did praise the Parks Department for being proactive.

“Parks was pretty good,” Puleo said. “They allowed everyone who needed to for health reasons to take the day off. They also advised people to be careful exerting themselves and workers who were 9/11 WTC survivors with health issues were offered to take the day off.”

“This is not the day to train for a marathon or to do an outside event with your children,” Mayor Adams told reporters on June 7. “Stay inside closed windows and doors and use air purifiers if you have them. If you are older or have heart or breathing problems or an older adult, you should remain inside. And if you must go outdoors, wear high-quality masks, such as a K-95.”

“This air quality event, which for a time yesterday gave us the worst air quality in New York City since the 1960s, presents real health risks,” said Dr. Ashwin Vasan, New York City Health Commissioner. “The fine particulate matter in the air can get into people's lungs, cause inflammation, and worsen conditions like asthma, chronic lung disease, or underlying heart conditions. Older adults may be particularly vulnerable due to declines in lung function and weaker immune systems.”


Vincent Variale is the president of DC 37’s Local 3621 which represents the FDNY’s EMS officers. He told Work-Bites that there was a bit of behind-the-scenes drama about shifting the way FDNY EMS units were deployed. Normally EMS units are forward deployed out in the community to reduce their response times. 

“I had a fight with the Fire Department because we wanted our members to go ‘1099’ which means we respond from our EMS station, but the FDNY took the position initially that would disrupt response times, so they wanted everybody to remain out on the street corners even though firefighters were on a “1051’ code, meaning they were to remain indoors at the firehouse,” Variale told Work-Bites. “I ordered everybody indoors and management said I couldn’t do that, and I said I just did—this was a health and safety issue---talk to my lawyer.”

The dust settled, Variale recounted when the FDNY told EMS crews they could wait for their calls indoors at the nearest police precinct, hospital, or fire house.

“These systems are in place for a reason, and they worked well yesterday,” responded an FDNY spokesperson to the Variale anecdote on June 8th. “We heard the concerns from our union leaders and acted accordingly by putting the shelter plan in place.”

The FDNY issued that directive at 3 p.m. on June 7.

The Daily News reported on June 7 that “outdoor activities in New York City at public schools, along with planned concerts, sporting events and other happenings across the city — including a Yankees game — were canceled Wednesday due to ongoing poor air quality, as dangerous smoke from Canada wildfires enveloped the city for a second day.

At 11 a.m. that day the FDNY went ahead with its annual Medal Day at the covered USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center Louis Armstrong Stadium. A union official texted Work-Bites from the event that the air quality was “very bad” and “it looks and feels like a fire is around the block.”


As early as May 11th government experts that monitor weather conditions in North America were predicting that 80 percent of Canada’s landmass faced an elevated wildfire risk that was likely to have hemispheric consequences because of its sheer scale. In essence it was as if spring was to be preempted entirely.

“Fire weather index calculations are coming online quickly due to the warm weather at the end of April and early May,” according to the North American Seasonal Fire Assessment and Outlook back in May. “Fire activity has increased rapidly during this period in British Columbia and the western Prairie Provinces. A few fires have also occurred in other jurisdictions. The number of fires for the time of year is above the 10-year normal in Yukon, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, and Parks Canada.” 

According to the analysis the area that was already burned was “above the 10-year normal in Yukon, British Columbia, Alberta, the Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland. The national reported total number of fires was 910 and area burned over 450,000 hectares as of May 9.”

June 5 Reuters reported Canada was “on track for its worst-ever year of wildfire destruction as warm and dry conditions are forecast to persist through to the end of the summer after an unprecedented start to the fire season” with blazes “burning in nearly all Canadian provinces and territories.”

The New York Times reported June 9 that “Canada’s capacity to prevent wildfires has been shrinking for decades because of budget cuts, a loss of some of the country’s forest service staff, and onerous rules for fire prevention, turning some of its forests into a tinderbox.”

The newspaper continued. “As residents braced for what could be the worst wildfire season on record, and one that is far from over, the air slowly cleared over the Northeastern United States on Friday, but hundreds of wildfires continued to burn across Canada.”


As the skies cleared off this weekend, the policy question that’s not being discussed is just how a supposed superpower that spends hundreds of billions of dollars of borrowed money on its military remains so clueless about the most clear and present danger to its essential workforce from wildfires that were burning for weeks just to the north of our border.

Face it, workers are invisible to the power structure. If we don’t speak up there’s no safety net.

We are all left with that sinking East Palestine post-derailment feeling when it was our volunteer first responders who had no choice but to rise to the occasion of putting their hearts and lungs on the line.

According to the US Fire Service 2021 National Needs Assessment, volunteer firefighters in towns the size of East Palestine are in short supply with an average of 6.7 firefighters available on weekdays, compared to 11.4 on the weekend.

And as it turns out, they are not that well-equipped.

When it comes to providing a Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus [SCBA] for firefighters, the US Fire Service reports, "more than half (53 percent) of all fire departments cannot equip everyone with SCBA. Departments protecting under 9,999 people have the highest rates of unmet need for SCBA equipment."

What could happen?

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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Source URL: https://portside.org/2023-06-29/toxic-fog-complacency