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Terrorism: The New Occupational Hazard

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Most of the direct victims of terrorism in the United States in recent years have been people at work. Employers, who have a legal responsibility to provide workplaces that are as free of "generally recognized hazards" as feasible, must consider their exposure to this emerging threat. This report describes how workplace safety programs are being reconsidered in this new light.

The World Trade Center site has presented an immediate safety and health challenge for public agencies and on-site workers. OSHA has jurisdiction in most disaster situations but exercises forbearance while local emergency authorities are dealing with rescue and recovery. This period was unusually prolonged in the World Trade case, while workers and the general public were exposed to many toxic substances. Special enforcement and monitoring programs have been adopted there incrementally.

General employer responsibilities that are relevant to the terrorism risk include building and site management, workers compensation and certain aspects of personnel policy (such as those regarding violence). In general, proper attention to these routine matters as modified for the new range of risks will help assure that all that can reasonably done in preparation will be done.

In certain high-risk industries, emergency planning is required by a number of laws. Most facilities that use large quantities of toxic or flammable materials must explicitly assess all potential accident modes, adapt processes to minimize them, and plan their responses to emergencies, including coordination with local emergency agencies.

The spread of anthrax through the mail has posed unique problems for many organizations. OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control have issued guidelines for dealing with this and other bioterror agents in workplaces. Legislation (H.R. 3448) is pending to improve overall preparedness for bioterrorism.