In Memoriam—James M. Melius, MD, DrPH
Melius was the principal architect of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2011, the federal law that supports an extensive program of medical monitoring and health care for first responders, volunteers, and survivors of the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the Shanksville, PA crash site of September 11, 2001. This Act also reopened the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund which has thus far provided over $3 billion in compensation to injured and ill 9/11 responders and survivors. With his knowledge of medicine and health policy, his multiple connections to legislators and labor leaders, and an uncanny sense of political timing, Melius designed the version of the Zadroga Bill that was successfully passed by the Congress in a dramatic lame duck session in the last days of 2010 and signed into law by President Obama in January 2011. Melius worked with labor leaders across the United States, especially with the fire fighter, police, and construction unions, with Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Chuck Schumer, and Hillary Clinton, and with Members of Congress Carolyn Maloney, Jerold Nadler of Manhattan, and Peter King of Long Island to pass this landmark bipartisan legislation. Jon Stewart, the well-known comedian and former host of The Daily Show, provided an invaluable boost to Melius’ work when in late December 2010 he shamed a reluctant Congress into passing the Zadroga legislation through a series of widely watched broadcasts featuring sick and injured 9/11 responders who were unable to obtain medical care.
Melius dedicated his professional life to protecting the health and safety of working men and women. From 1980 to 1987, he directed the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health's renowned Health Hazards Evaluations and Technical Assistance Branch based in Cincinnati. From 1987 to 1994, he served under Governor Mario Cuomo as Director of the Center for Environmental Health in the New York State Department of Health where he oversaw the establishment of a statewide network of Centers of Excellence in Occupational Health and Safety, the only such network in the United States, which continues to this day and formed the backbone of the medical response to 9/11. From 1994 until his death he was Administrator of the New York State Laborers’ Health and Safety Trust Fund and Research Director for the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America, organizations affiliated with the Laborers International Union of North America.
Melius developed a special relationship with the building and construction trades unions, and spent much of his career improving safety and health on construction sites. Until the late 1980s this industrial sector, which contains some of the most hazardous workplaces in America, had been neglected by researchers and policymakers alike. Melius helped to end that neglect by assisting the Laborers International Union to develop a unique national program that encompassed not only occupational safety and health but also health promotion activities such as smoking cessation, the first—and still the only—national worker protection program that uses health insurance premiums to support occupational safety and health. He also forged an agreement between the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the construction industry to create the National Construction Safety and Health Research Program. In consequence of these efforts, 500 fewer workers die each year on construction sites today than in 1990.