MEDFORD — CSEA State Department of Transportation (Babylon) Local Treasurer Dennis Kearney and local member Steven Santana were having a typical day at work when smoke from Canadian fires was traveling along the East Coast.
Kearney and Santana were largely unaffected by the situation until the smoke finally hit Long Island and slowly began to envelop the area.
“We were outside working on cable rails and we got a call to return to the yard because of the poor air quality,” said Kearney.
Kearney and Santana were stationed on the eastern end of Long Island, where the smoke did not reach until later in the day. As the workers drove back to the yard, they could see that they were driving into the smoke. Suddenly, they were engulfed in the pollutant-filled air.
“It looked like we were driving into a fire,” said Santana. “By the time we got back to the yard, the sun was totally covered with smoke.”
“You could see particles in the air,” said Kearney. “At certain points, we only had about 150 yards of visibility.”
They described the scene as “looking like a scene from a movie like “Independence Day.””
Employer protects workers
Management quickly took action to protect the workers, and KN95 masks were already available at Kearney and Santana’s worksite when they returned, which workers immediately put on.
Workers also turned on the air conditioner to help filter the air and closed all of the doors and windows in the garage, as advised by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation and the state Department of Health.
“I have a preexisting heart condition, so I was concerned about protecting myself,” said Kearney. “But I also knew that I had a job to do.”
Santana opted to also wear safety goggles because he has eye sensitivity.
Kearney, Santana and their colleagues spent the rest of their shift indoors preparing for the following day, including preparing equipment and refueling trucks.
For the next few days, whenever workers were required to be outdoors, they took extra precautions, including doing as many tasks as possible from inside their vehicles – with windows up and air conditioning on.
“We never stopped operating, we just did our work on a smaller scale,” said Kearney.
Like most other people affected by the pollutants, during their breaks, the DOT workers also checked air quality tracker apps and websites for updated information on the air quality in their area.
The dayslong air quality event has made Santana and Kearney more appreciative of being union members.
“I’ve worked at private companies that would’ve had us working outside expecting production level to be high, despite the weather event,” said Santana. “I’m glad that we have a job where people care about our safety.”
— Wendi Bowie