Worker Protection Is Key Component of Homeland Security

Emergency response, rescue and other workers were ill-prepared and ill-equiped for the scene that met them following the Oklahoma City, World Trade Center and Pentagon disasters, says a new report, and as a result, many workers suffered needless injuries. The report also claims that search and rescue operations at the World Trade Center continued too long, risking lives needlessly.

The report, "Learning from Disasters: Weapons of Mass Destruction Preparedness Through Worker Training," summarizes the findings of a National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Worker Education and Training Program technical workshop that brought together national experts involved in the recent terrorist attacks with those providing the emergency response and cleanup around weapons of mass destruction. (The report is available on-line at http://www.wetp.org.)

The report notes there were many deficiencies in the protection of rescue and other workers that resulted in needless injuries, particularly to eyes and lungs. The World Trade Center collapse "was so massive, extensive in duration and complex that nearly all aspects of our well developed and relatively mature destructive incident response and cleanup operations plans were challenged and, in many cases, found defective in some measure," said the report.

Improvements recommended in the report include:

  • First-on-the-scene emergency response personnel, such as police and firefighters, need to be trained in and provided with appropriate protective gear, particularly respiratory protection. Major urban centers should identify sources of additional, back-up equipment in the face of a major attack or disaster.
  • The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) should develop safety regulations tailored to the challenges of large terrorist events, and these revised guidelines need to be included in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other response plans. Older, more general guidelines, according to the report, are "essentially useless" in the face of such a mass destruction as that at the Trade Center.
  • Firm guidelines for ending the search and rescue phase after 12-15 days are needed. The report says that there is virtually no likelihood of recovery of living victims after that time and that rescue workers cannot function safely after two weeks of 12-hour days. Continued protracted efforts then "begin to take a toll in both physical and mental terms," which leads to increased risk taking, injuries and illness.
  • Worker protection standards must be enforced.
  • With personnel at the scene of the World Trade Center numbering more than 5,000, command, control, communication and coordination were extremely difficult. These should be improved under a unified command.

The report concludes with recommended elements of a training preparedness initiative by the NIEHS Worker Education and Training Program. The NIEHS report is one of several initiatives underway in the Department of Health and Human Services to better protect emergency response workers from injury and death in the line of duty.

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