AIHce: Occupational Health Impact of the World Trade Center Disaster: Lessons Learned

The American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Exposition’s (AIHce) June 4 general session in Minneapolis focused on the impact industrial hygienists and environmental health and safety professionals can make to prevent or minimize the health effects suffered by first responders during disasters or terrorist attacks.

Featured general session speaker Robin Herbert, M.D., director, World Trade Center (WTC) Medical Monitoring Program Data and Coordination Center, Mount Sinai-Irving J. Selikoff Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine, discussed her experiences with WTC terrorist attack responders to illustrate lessons learned to help prevent occupational health problems in similar, future events.

Herbert discussed the background, history and medical consequences of the WTC attack on responders to the disaster (including firefighters; police; utility; construction; transit and telecom workers; and others). She stressed that the responders to the WTC attack did not just include traditional first responders such as firefighters and police, but also included many other workers who were not trained or prepared to respond to a disaster of that magnitude.

“This is one of the important messages to take home if … there is a disaster in your community and you are called to consult at such an event,” she said, “in addition to the traditional first responders that we all think of, a large number of World Trade Center responders came from occupations and industries which had not prepared in any way for the horrors of disaster response work.”

After discussing the physical and mental health effects the WTC disaster had on responders, Herbert had suggestions for the audience to help them prepare those who might respond to future disasters.

“(It is critical to) create and define boundaries, keeping a list of who enters those boundaries, limiting the amount of time people can spend within those boundaries, limiting periods of work and making sure people don’t sleep where they are working,” Herbert said.

She also added that rosters should be kept of those working in disaster recovery sites, and better respiratory protection gear training is needed – especially for those workers who do not normally use such gear in their day-to-day jobs but who would wear it in a disaster response situation.

“I think, unfortunately, we were caught off guard last time,” Herbert said in reference to the WTC attack. “…Hopefully we can do a better job by learning from this episode.”

WTC Medical Monitoring Program provides free, periodic, standardized medical assessments; mental health assessments; clinical referrals; benefits counseling; and occupational general health education to patients who were involved in the rescue and recovery effort at Ground Zero. Herbert is leading the analysis of data from more than 19,000 patient examinations, and she continues to work with city, state and federal officials; labor unions; employers; and others to ensure that WTC responders are able to receive long-term evaluation and care.

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