Iraq Rebuilding Process Presents Unique EHS Challenges

Think your job is hard? Imaging trying to keep barefoot workers safe on a construction site. Or rebuilding an entire country with a workforce that has never been trained on occupational safety and has never seen PPE.

That was the challenge one of many, many challenges confronting Susan Tianen of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who recently spent two tours of duty in war-torn Iraq to assist with the rebuilding process.

"Nothing was as easy as we thought it would be," Tianen said of the reconstruction efforts, which, by mandate, have to include as many Iraqi laborers as possible.

Tianen, who is the chief safety officer with the Army Corps of Engineers' safety office for the Los Angeles District, spoke at a Thursday session of the National Safety Council's Congress and Expo. The event concludes today in Orlando, Fla.

Is it possible to establish an occupational safety and health culture in a country whose citizens often settle disputes by shooting each other? In a country without a skilled work force, let alone PPE? In a civilization that Tianen described to someone as being more than "50 years behind Tijuana"?

Tianen despite being forced to cut one of her tours of duty short because "I kept getting shot at and blown up" seemed optimistic.

"I think [Iraqi workers] would do it right," she said. "They have a great amount of pride. They just don't have anything to be proud of."

In fact, Tianen noted that Iraqi workers have been receptive to wearing PPE, and the Iraqis even have passed some of those safe work practices on to their fellow workers.

While there's no such thing as an Iraq OSHA, all contractors working for the Army Corps of Engineers must meet the safety requirements established in the U.S. Army's EM 385-1-1 regulations. Still, before any semblance of an occupational safety and health culture is established, there are a host of obstacles to overcome, Tianen explained.

For one thing, Iraq lacks a skilled work force.

"There are no carpenters, no plumbers, no electricians none of those people there," Tianen said. "They got paid $3 a day to stay out of the nation's business" when Saddam Hussein was in power.

Consequently, Tianen asserted that Iraqi laborers would have to be trained on basic trade skills and EHS concepts at the same time.

While Tianen insisted that Iraqi laborers are "learning the right way" when it comes to occupational safety, she also lamented that there aren't enough civilians such as herself in Iraq to teach occupational safety and health to the work force.

"There just aren't enough people that are willing to go over there and get shot at," she said.

And there's little hope that safe work practices will spread by word of mouth throughout the country, since tribal rivalries keep most Iraqis citizens confined to their own neighborhoods.

"Your work force has to be from the same tribe, the same city, or they'll get shot," Tianen said. "Even if you train workers in this little four-block section [of a city], they're not going to go across the street and work. They're only going to work [in their own neighborhood]. You can't pay them to work across the street."

Such sectarian differences have frustrated reconstruction efforts whose first priorities are to establish water, power and sewer systems to Iraq in many different ways, Tianen explained.

She said there were instances when tribes sabotaged electricity substations or sewage pumping stations because power or sewer was provided to rival tribes before it was provided to them. In other cases, Iraqis who had never had electricity sabotaged power substations when they became jealous of other Iraqis who were being brought online as part of the reconstruction efforts.

"If They're Mad at You, They'll Shoot You"

Beyond the tribal squabbling, there were other cultural differences such as the Iraqis' backward views toward women that exasperated Tianen and often slowed the reconstruction efforts to a grinding halt. For example, many Iraqis have trouble resolving disputes peacefully, Tianen explained.

"If they're mad at you, they'll shoot you," she said. " … You can't leave anyone mad at anyone. Your meeting [with Iraqi laborers] may be scheduled for an hour, and it may last 6 hours.

"And they don't just threaten to kill you. They tell you, 'I'm going to kill you, your family and your neighbors.'"

Still, Tianen's compassion and sympathy for the Iraqi people was evident. She pointed out that 75 percent of the country lives in abject poverty, and 70 percent of its citizens lacked running water and indoor plumbing before the war. She blasted media reports that intimated reconstruction efforts were failing because 70 percent of Iraq still had no power.

"[The media] is right they do have no power, because they live in mud homes," Tianen asserted.

Tianen described a society decimated and psychologically crippled from years of war and Saddam Hussein's oppressive rule a society that has developed survival mechanisms that have rendered citizens collectively dysfunctional. She told stories of Iraqi fathers who arranged multiple marriages for their teenage daughters for money, and a citizenry afraid to make simple decisions for fear of being killed by Saddam's henchmen.

And in a society in which there is not trash pickup Iraqis often toss garbage out their window into the streets, creating trash mounds as high as six stories power grid or 9-1-1 system, when it came to safety and health Tianen often wondered "can we just get them running water and toilets first?"

Tianen "Sure as Hell" Would Go Back for the Kids

The debate over whether to pull out of Iraq has intensified in recent months, with the death toll continuing to climb and the devastation of hurricanes Katrina and Rita raising questions about where the United States should be focusing its military and monetary resources. While Tianen avoided discussing the politics of the war, she made it clear that if U.S. troops were pulled out of Iraq anytime soon, she would go back in a heartbeat.

Why? Because of the kids.

"The kids are absolutely the key to Iraq," Tianen said. "It has nothing to do with the people in power at this time."

She explained that kids in Iraq are unwanted, ignored and often fatherless years of war have wiped out many of the men who would be in their 30s and viewed as a "byproduct of sex." At the same time, she holds out hope for the country's future because Iraqi kids are seeing "humanity at its best" in their interactions with coalition soldiers.

"The minute we pull out of there, I guarantee you a lot of our soldiers are going right back over there," Tianen said. "I sure as hell will. If we pull out I'm going right back over there as a civilian."

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