In a tragic start to the new year, the labor community lost a hero with the passing of public health expert Dr. James “Jim” Melius. Dr. Melius was an occupational health physician who served as the Administrator of the New York State Laborers’ Health and Safety Trust Fund; Administrator and Treasurer of the New York State Laborers’ Political Action Committee; Research Director of the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America; Chair of the Federal Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health; Chair of the Steering Committee for what would become the WTC Health Program; Chairman of a medical advisory committee for the International Association of Fire Fighters; and Member of the 9/11 Health Watch Board of Directors. Earlier in his career, he worked for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and the New York State Department of Health.
Dr. Melius was a fierce, yet soft-spoken, advocate on behalf of American workers, which, in turn, has benefited the public at large. For over thirty years, he testified before various legislative bodies on issues such as 9/11 toxins exposure, asbestos exposure, radiation exposure, silica exposure, and general construction safety issues. As an experienced physician, trained epidemiologist, and well-studied Doctor of Philosophy, Dr. Melius possessed a vast knowledge of disease patterns caused by toxins exposure and workplace hazards.
Over 3,000 members of the New York State Laborers’ local unions served as 9/11 responders on, and in the months following, September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of 9/11, Dr. Melius dispatched inspectors in an attempt to protect the health and safety of members at a time when the government ensured New Yorkers the air was safe to breathe. Dr. Melius understood that there is no safe level of asbestos, which was only one of many 9/11 toxins in the air. He later commented that even one strand of asbestos is a cancer hazard (at least 400 tons of asbestos was in the air after 9/11).
On September 12, 2007, in testimony before the House Committee on Education and Labor, Dr. Melius, ever the consummate professional, respectfully chastised the federal government’s sloppy oversight of 9/11 worker safety. Specifically, Dr. Melius expressed disappointment in the rush to initiate the clean-up phase at Ground Zero and the lack of enforcement by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
While acknowledging the need for a swift initial response and rescue effort, he said “There is no reason that work could not have been stopped there after the rescue phase, until it could have been organized, and we could have had a proper safety program that could be enforced throughout that site.” In closing, Dr. Melius, as always, kept an eye to the future: he called for advanced training and preparation for catastrophic events and federal funding for 9/11 health monitoring (which later evolved into the WTC Health Program).
Thanks to Dr. Melius’s unique trifecta of roles with the New York State Laborers’ Union, he served as a staunch and influential advocate for passage of the James Zadroga Health and Compensation Act of 2010 (“Zadroga Act”). Political savvy, epidemiological training, and hands-on clinical experience made Dr. Melius a formidable opponent of challengers to the Zadroga Act (159 U.S. Representatives voted against the first attempt at House Passage). Dr. Melius was also instrumental in the 2015 reauthorization of the Zadroga Act.
Dr. Melius’s legacy is not only defined by his skill and effectiveness, but also by his empathy and respect for American workers. Last year, while testifying regarding silica exposure before the House Committee on Education and Labor, he recalled one of his first patients as an occupational physician in the 1970s. The young man developed severe silicosis caused by his exposure in a foundry, which led to a tragic death in his early thirties. Through actions, Dr. Melius has made clear that the memory of this young man remained in his conscience throughout his long and storied career. Just three months ago, Dr. Melius co-authored a New York Daily News op-ed praising the announcement of a new memorial dedicated to the honor of 9/11 toxins exposure victims.
America lost a hero this week. Dr. Melius will forever be remembered for his dedication to the labor community and to victims of 9/11 toxins exposure. His tireless work on behalf of American workers will benefit generations to come.