Mayor Joe Riley on Wednesday accused state workplace safety officials of betraying Charleston's trust by issuing contradictory statements about the suitability of polyester uniforms worn by city firefighters.
Riley said the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration assured the city in 2003 and again last week that the uniforms complied with state regulations. He said he was taken aback when OSHA officials were quoted in Saturday's Post and Courier saying that the uniforms no longer comply.
In a letter sent to state OSHA administrator Dottie Ison on Tuesday, Riley said the city acted in good faith and continued to use the uniforms based on the agency's assurances. But he said Ison and agency spokesman Jim Knight suddenly abandoned that stance after the Sofa Super Store blaze that killed nine Charleston firefighters June 18. Riley said that was "revisionism at its worst."
"It is imperative that an atmosphere of trust and credibility permeate OSHA's relationship with employers," the mayor stated in the letter. "The inconsistent actions of your agency are deeply troubling as they are irreconcilable."
Knight said Wednesday that OSHA was in the process of reviewing Riley's letter and would respond to the mayor directly. He offered no further comment.
The Post and Courier reported Aug. 29 that the uniforms offer inadequate
protection to firefighters because they can melt in high heat and do not meet national safety standards. The newspaper's report also cited Knight, who said the city's uniforms are not in compliance with state regulations because the uniforms don't meet standards prescribed by the National Fire Protection Association.
Ison told The Post and Courier on Friday that her agency uses those national standards to determine whether fire departments are complying with state regulations. She said that the national standard requires that fire station uniforms meet heat-resistance guidelines.
The polyester uniforms used by the city do not meet heat-resistance guidelines or the national standard, according to the uniform's manufacturer, Elbeco. Most other area fire departments abandoned polyester uniforms years ago.
The city announced plans last week to replace the uniforms to allay safety concerns. But Riley still insists that the city is complying with state regulations. The city this week also sent a Freedom of Information Act request and another letter to OSHA requesting that the agency preserve and turn over all information it has gathered during its investigation of the sofa store fire. Similar letters were sent to the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation and the South Carolina Fire Academy.
Riley said Wednesday that the city wants to determine why OSHA changed its stance on the uniforms and who has been communicating with the agency to influence its thinking. "The simple fact is: It's wrong. We want it corrected and we are concerned about their actions," he said.
Riley said OSHA told the city on several occasions that the state hasn't adopted the National Fire Protection Association's standards for uniforms. In 2003, state OSHA inspectors also determined that no hazard existed because the department requires that firefighters battling fires wear outer protective gear over the polyester uniforms.
Roger Yow, president of the Charleston Firefighters Association, said he agrees with Riley that OSHA needs to clarify its stance on the issue. But he said the mayor and other city leaders were well aware of safety concerns about the uniforms. Yow's union, which represents about half of the city's firefighters, raised those concerns in a 2002 proposal provided to city leaders.