Foulke and Dietrich Discuss Importance of Improved Communication

During their Aug. 2 opening address at the third annual National Response Team Worker Safety and Health and Technical Conference, OSHA Administrator Edwin Foulke Jr. and Deborah Dietrich, director of EPA's Office of Emergency Management, acknowledged that while the two agencies are making headway in their emergency response efforts, there's still room for improvement in the area of communication.

The need for improved communication is one of the lessons learned by both OSHA and the EPA in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina, according to Dietrich.

“[After Katrina], many agencies were out there sampling,” she said. “There's a lot of information lying around and people will look to EPA and OSHA to know what is safe, how workers are affected and it is our responsibility to figure out that data and to get the word out as quickly and as broadly as possible.”

After the events of Sept. 11, EPA was criticized after former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman assured New York City residents and Ground Zero workers that the air around Ground Zero was safe to breathe, when in reality, the air and debris contained asbestos particles, shards of fiberglass and other toxins.

Foulke emphasized that it is just as important to have the lines of communication open between response personnel and agencies to find out what is happening during and immediately after a disaster. He alluded to the tragic I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis, Minn., where five people are reportedly killed and eight are still missing, and noted how jammed cellular phone lines have made it difficult to get in touch with response personnel who are onsite.. He said it was essential for responders to have the right means of communication in order to get in touch with agencies that can help them to stay safe while assisting.

“Communication is key in any type of emergency,” he said.

“We Can't Do It Ourselves”

In addition to having an improved method of communication, Foulke also said that it was important for all government agencies to work together so that agencies can be better prepared in the event of a disaster, whether it's man-made or natural in scope, and as a result, offer a better response.

“One thing I have learned since I have taken this job is that we can't do it ourselves,” he said.

Working together is critical during a response, Dietrich concurred, and she noted that other government entities, such as the Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security, have volunteered to assist both OSHA and EPA in achieving that goal.

Preparedness Is Necessary

In order to ensure that emergency response workers are not placing their physical, emotional and mental well-being in jeopardy, Dietrich said it was important to provide response personnel with the preparation and tools necessary to respond adequately.

“Before anything happens, we need to make sure they have the right equipment, we need to make sure that our response personnel are given every benefit possible to be in shape, to know what is expected of them and to be physically fit in the demands that are put on them,” she said.

Preparedness also is key when looking at possible future scenarios where unknown contaminants in the shape of dirty bombs, for example, might come into play, and that's something that both agencies have to stay on top of, according to Dietrich.

“We're gonna run into [unpredictable] scenarios and there's a real possibility we are going to run into some contamination we are not really sure how to deal with,” she said. "Everything we can do to think towards the future to what we might be facing and get as prepared as possible is very important.”

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