<- Back

Robert Adams is a Senior Manager in the Geosciences Group at ENVIRON International Corporation in Princeton, New Jersey. As a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) and Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH) with 24 years of experience in the safety, health and environmental (SH&E) field, Adams has done much to serve his profession. In this interview, Adams describes the role he played in the clean-up of the World Trade Center disaster site, and he offers his insight into the future of nanotechnology.

Please provide a brief overview of ENVIRON International Corporation and of your position as Manager in the Geosciences Group.

ENVIRON International Corporation is an international consultancy with offices throughout the world. We provide a full range of safety, health and environmental (SH&E) services to large Fortune 500 companies, law firms and government agencies, and we offer support to business associations and small corporate financial institutions.

In my position, I manage occupational safety and industrial hygiene services for our clients.

You managed safety, health and environmental (SH&E) programs for the City of New York Department of Design and Construction, an agency that oversaw the clean-up of the World Trade Center disaster site. What specific challenges did you face in managing these SH&E programs, and how did you resolve them?

The mayor asked the agency to support the response efforts because it had contracts with large construction companies, and the city needed heavy equipment to remove debris from the disaster site. At the time, I served as the agency’s SH&E Director, and I arrived at the site on September 13, 2001 to oversee contractor safety and health during the rescue and recovery response.

The toughest challenge we faced was enforcing the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), particularly respiratory protection. The construction workers, firefighters and police were not used to wearing that type of PPE, and it was difficult to convince them to wear the equipment. Since we did not have a clear understanding of the air contaminants present, such as asbestos and combustion by-products from the fires, gases and dust, it was important for everyone to use respiratory protection. This remained a challenge throughout the rescue and recovery.

It was also challenging to coordinate people from the different federal, state and city agencies to evaluate SH&E conditions at the site. However, with the support of agencies like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and with the help of private sector companies, we formed a team that underscored the importance of proper respiratory protection. We developed a program to monitor atmospheric conditions so that we could make good decisions, and a group from Bechtel and Liberty Mutual Insurance helped us to get an industrial hygiene monitoring program in place so that we could quickly obtain testing data from the site.

The “bathtub” or foundation wall of the World Trade Center was another major challenge that we needed to address. An engineering group came to the site to determine the condition of this six-story, underground slurry wall, which essentially prevented the Hudson River from flooding the World Trade Center complex. After the collapse of the buildings, the sub grade portion that used to be the old parking garage became a confined space. The debris, difficulty in accessing the lower levels, fires, gases and other hazards made complying with the confined space entry rules very difficult. I prepared an initial entry plan so that the engineers could safely perform a sub grade inspection of the wall and assess the damage. This proved to be one of our most critical early-stage activities. Later, with the assistance of OSHA and other SH&E professionals, we developed and implemented a modified protocol for confined space entry during the debris removal work that was required in the lower levels.

All of the agencies worked together and no one worried about what area was under their jurisdiction. Everyone collaborated to overcome these and many other challenges.

You coordinated a multiagency taskforce of SH&E professionals to assist in the clean-up efforts at the World Trade Center disaster site. What criteria did you use in selecting SH&E professionals for this taskforce, and how did the taskforce establish an agenda for the job?

First of all, I was blessed that the people who came to work at the disaster site were already dedicated professionals. I did not go out with a goal, but I knew that we needed solid performers with good track records who could oversee one of the most dangerous worksites in the country. However, since communication was difficult in the early days of the response effort, I literally “walked the job” to find these people. I visited contractor supervisors in person and asked to speak with their onsite SH&E professional who then put me in touch with other SH&E professionals.

We also posted signs around the work site asking people to attend morning safety meetings, which we held at a local school. We did not expect to have very many attendees at our first meeting, but close to 30 people from both the public and private sectors came. It was really heartwarming to see this kind of commitment to SH&E.

As we moved from rescue to recovery, we formed several safety and health committees that consisted of members from government, business and labor. Committee members included executives from the large construction companies and labor union leaders. We used our combined SH&E experience to create an agenda, and I used my connections within my agency to assist in the leadership of these committees. It was a tremendous feeling to see all these people working together toward a common goal of protecting the rescue and response workers.

Under your leadership, the World Trade Center disaster site had no response worker fatalities or serious disabling injuries, and only 35 lost-time injuries occurred in 3.3 million work hours. How did you achieve this safety record?

This is the result of the team we put together and of our partnership with both the public and private sectors. We also signed an agreement with OSHA in November 2001 that we implemented, among other things, in compliance with the established SH&E plan. By holding regular SH&E meetings and by tackling issues as soon as they arose, we left nothing behind.

Traveling and rotating field teams directly intervened with workers to actively enforce SH&E rules. These teams worked 24/7 and followed a twelve-hour constant reporting process so that I could inform senior executives at the agency of any problem spots.

As we began to move the debris, we encountered huge fall hazards, but we developed a fall protection program that was as close to universal fall protection as we could make it. To control leading-edge hazards, we worked with a contractor who built platforms and guardrails to prevent falls. And although some people did fall, none of them suffered any serious injuries. So thanks to our fall protection program, diligent teamwork and “steel-toed boots on the ground” approach, we worked many hours with few injuries. Many predicted that people would die during the response efforts, but not one person was seriously disabled or traumatically injured.

You participated in a taskforce that conducted security and vulnerability analysis for the City of New York Department of Design and Construction after the World Trade Center disaster, and based on the results of this analysis, you recommended that the agency commissioner, along with other agencies and the Office of Emergency Management, develop integrated emergency preparedness plans. What methodology did the taskforce use during its analysis, and how have emergency response agencies in New York City incorporated preparedness plans into their response programs thus far?

Before September 11, 2001, we had recognized the need for greater emergency preparedness within the agency for small-scale incidents even though the city had its own emergency management office. After September 11, however, the agency found itself in a new role. Now it was asked to respond to a different level of emergency affecting the city. Instead of participating as one of many response agencies, it needed to take on a lead role, as we did at the World Trade Center. In conjunction with other agency directors, I helped to:

  • Identify potential response scenarios.
  • Determine how to better support response actions.
  • Identify resources that the agency could bring to the response.

I no longer work for the agency, so I have not seen how these se new emergency preparedness plans prompted by the events of September 11 have been incorporated.

As a Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH), what do you believe was the greatest industrial hygiene concern during the clean-up of the World Trade Center disaster site?

The greatest industrial hygiene concern we faced was silica from concrete dust. The most significant silica exposure occurred during the stabilization of the “bathtub” or foundation wall. When the buildings collapsed into the basement, the support for the foundation wall was lost. We had to drill hundreds of holes into the wall to secure tie-back anchors that would support it. Since this task created the highest level of silica exposure, we required workers to wear full-face, air-purifying respirators. While there was always concern for other substances like asbestos, lead and Freon, silica was the most significant exposure we had to address.

In your opinion, how can SH&E professionals more effectively participate in emergency preparedness and disaster recovery operations? How can state and federal agencies make better use of SH&E expertise?

I am Vice Chair of the American Industrial Hygiene Association’s (AIHA) Emergency Preparedness Response Task Force, and we are examining how SH&E professionals can better support emergency response. All SH&E professionals should get involved in this area and participate in emergency planning. There are still many businesses that have not conducted security or vulnerability analyses of their operations, and they need to understand that any kind of emergency response situation creates risks. Controlling these risks and protecting workers go beyond evacuation plans. You must look at the entire situation from a prevention/mitigation/response perspective. SH&E professionals are well-suited to research these situations to learn what kind of problems they may encounter. If they have limited emergency preparedness experience, they should further their knowledge through professional development and training opportunities. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) website provides links to emergency management information. We do not know when the next emergency situation will occur (and it does not have to be a terrorist attack or natural catastrophe), but all of us as SH&E professionals should be prepared.

State and local agencies do not always make use of SH&E expertise, or they may assign an unskilled SH&E professional to an SH&E officer position. Those in the SH&E profession must recognize that they have a lot to bring to an emergency response situation. I find that once incident commanders and other response professionals recognize SH&E skills, they become indispensable members of the team.

In what ways has your experience at the World Trade Center disaster site helped you in your position at ENVIRON International Corporation?

My experience has made me realize the importance of emergency preparedness. I now look more closely at emergency preparedness during SH&E audits. At any given time, any one of us could end up supporting an emergency response, be it internally or externally. As SH&E professionals, we need to look at these issues to determine if the companies we work for or our clients are well-prepared, and if they are not, we must help them to reach that level. I do not hesitate to offer advice based on my experience at the World Trade Center disaster site.

You have conducted SH&E audits and industrial hygiene exposure assessments of thousands of facilities, construction sites and businesses. Based on your experience, what recommendations can you make to those SH&E professionals who regularly conduct assessments?

Before SH&E professionals visit a particular site, they must learn that company’s business to get a better feel for how things are done. It is difficult to be successful in auditing if you do not understand a company’s operations. I recently worked with a company that experienced serious safety accidents. I took the time to understand how they did what they did, and I identified several issues that could have led to similar accidents. By finding out how people work, I can provide sound risk recommendations for controlling losses and injuries.

We need to always maintain our professional skills through ongoing professional development or by taking additional courses outside of work. Our field changes constantly, and new hazards emerge regularly. You must commit to learning new skills and approaches.

How can companies improve their SH&E audit results and reduce industrial hygiene exposures?

I always advise new clients that you have to start with a minimum commitment to OSHA compliance. That is the foundation upon which further risk management efforts can be built. Also, businesses need to recognize that it may not be possible to have a “clean” audit. What is important is how you respond to the audit finding. A proactive company will take each finding seriously and implement corrective action plans. These types of companies rarely have repeat audit findings.

I am surprised to find that some businesses have very little understanding of industrial hygiene exposures in their facilities. About a year ago, I performed an audit at a plant, and the plant manager said that he did not think he had any exposures to chemical substances within the plant. And to his knowledge, no one had ever conducted an industrial hygiene survey of the plant. As I walked through the plant, I found at least four areas that could have had potential overexposures. I think that facilities should have periodic job hazard analyses performed by an industrial hygienist or safety professional. Jobs with potential chemical exposure risks should be quantitatively evaluated, and appropriate control measures should be instituted.

You have developed Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) compliance programs for such topics as:

  • Asbestos
  • Hazard communication
  • Laboratory safety
  • Lead
  • Noise and hearing conservation
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls
  • Radiation
  • Respiratory protection

And you have created and presented training programs for the following subjects:

  • Bloodborne pathogens
  • Emergency response
  • Hazard communication
  • Hazardous waste operations
  • Industrial hygiene methods
  • Noise
  • Respiratory protection

How do you develop these programs, and how do you ensure that they remain up-to-date and reflect the latest information?

First, I continually monitor the regulatory environment. I consider OSHA compliance a baseline. All companies should have baseline programs in place, and if they do not, I work with them to identify their compliance gaps. Once baseline compliance is established, we can move toward risk management.

I like to customize training programs for my clients. There are plenty of off-the-shelf training programs available, but I prefer to work with clients to understand their needs and the types of employees they have. Anyone can give a PowerPoint presentation and then say that they trained some people, but I do not want to put people to sleep. My goal is to present lively and entertaining training programs that give students information they can take with them and use.

You have significant experience in the field of nanotechnology. What steps are nanotechnology researchers taking to better protect the safety and health of those who work with nanomaterials on a regular basis?

Nanotechnology is quite fascinating. Since we know so little about its potential risks, we are trying to take a prudent approach to protecting workers. My experience is largely with research and development companies that are using nanotechnology in a laboratory environment. We have to work with them on controls, ventilation and equipment that they might not otherwise use. With research and development, the focus is on results, and sometimes protection is not an immediate priority. We must help scientists to understand that although we know little about the risks associated with nanotechnology, the assumption is that risks exist. In the meantime, we must protect ourselves through use of PPE, fume hoods and other engineering controls. Once we have a better understanding of the risks involved, then we may be able to modify our approaches. Nanotechnology has great promise, and we must move forward, but at the same time, we must be aware of the potential risks and learn how to control them. To be truly effective, we must continually find new ways to protect workers and modify traditional approaches or methods. Researchers know that they have to take better steps to protect themselves, and they are working on policies, plans and procedures for nanotechnology even though the risks are not yet fully understood.

How can air monitoring methods be improved to more accurately measure nanoparticle levels?

To understand the risks of exposure to nanoparticles, you must understand what is most significant. Nanoparticles are deliberately designed with new properties, and those properties may be different from their larger counterparts. Since other properties change with the changing size of the particle, we may also be changing the toxicological properties. In nanotechnology, we do not believe that mass is the most important determinant of exposure risk. Current thinking is that exposure risks may depend more on the surface area, the number of particles or the size of the particles to which a person is exposed. The challenge is how to effectively measure those parameters. Right now, it is very expensive to create reliable methods that are easy to use in the field and that allow us to obtain accurate exposure measurements. NIOSH is currently researching this, and other groups are trying to determine the metric we need, be it the particle size, number of particles or the surface area characteristics or perhaps a combination of all three. For now, we do not know how nanoparticles can affect workers, so it will be a while before we have a metric by which to compare measurements.

From your perspective, how do you believe nanotechnology has impacted the SH&E profession? What are your predictions for the future of nanotechnology?

I think that it will force us to think differently and to step outside of our comfort zone. Industrial hygienists are used to collecting samples through tried and tested methods. Nanotechnology will challenge us to employ new ideas and to think differently about our roles as SH&E professionals. Most of us right now are probably not very involved in nanotechnology activities, but as the field grows, we will need to become more involved. Nanotechnology’s possibilities and positive benefits are too great to ignore, and I think a lot of people will step up to be part of this field. The area is primed to grow dramatically even if only half of what is promised comes to pass. It will radically change how we do business, manufacture products and deal with risks in the workplace. I believe that many SH&E professionals will embrace this opportunity.

You are an adjunct professor of industrial hygiene at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. What advice do you have for students who wish to pursue careers in industrial hygiene?

I think it is exciting and challenging to be involved in the industrial hygiene and SH&E fields. I sort of fell into these fields after college, but my career has brought me great personal satisfaction. My advice to students is to learn as much as you can about the industrial hygiene and SH&E professions. There has been some concern that these professions do not offer enough growth, but I feel that there are plenty of opportunities for young people to do well and to add value to the corporations they work for or clients they advise. Young people should see themselves as an integral part of these rewarding and noble professions, and they should not be afraid to go into the field with an open mind. They should be prepared to change and to keep up with developments in the field. When you have a career in the industrial hygiene or SH&E professions, you never stop learning. You should be willing to learn new things everyday.


Robert Adams is a Senior Manager in the Geosciences Group at ENVIRON International Corporation in New Jersey. He has 24 years of experience in the safety, health and environmental (SH&E) field within both the public and private sectors, and he has managed a wide range of projects, including:

  • Development and presentation of training programs
  • Development of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) compliance programs
  • Emergency preparedness
  • Litigation support and expert testimony
  • Managing multidisciplinary SH&E teams in crisis situations
  • Occupational safety and health exposure assessments
  • Safety and health audits

Throughout his career, Adams has conducted SH&E audits and industrial hygiene exposure assessments of thousands of facilities, construction sites and commercial businesses.He has also evaluated corporate-level SH&E management systems to assist clients in implementing best management practices.

During the clean-up of the World Trade Center disaster site, Adams managed the SH&E programs of the City of New York Department of Design and Construction and coordinated a multiagency task force of SH&E professionals to help in the clean-up efforts. Under his leadership, the disaster site achieved a safety record that included no response worker fatalities, no serious disabling injuries and only 35 lost-time injuries in 3.3 million work hours. Adams then made recommendations to the Commissioner of the City of New York Department of Design and Construction for developing integrated emergency preparedness plans with other agencies in New York City and with the Office of Emergency Management.

Adams is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP), a Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH) and an adjunct professor of industrial hygiene at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is also the Vice Chair of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Task Force of the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) and a member of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) A10.26 subgroup on Emergency Procedures in Construction.

Adams holds a bachelor of science degree in biology from Clarion University of Pennsylvania and a master of science degree in safety sciences from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.