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AIHce: Lessons Learned from 9/11

No one will argue that cleanup operations following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York City resulted in unique worker safety and health challenges. Those challenges, however, will no longer be unique should another terrorist incident occur on U.S. soil.

That's why two industrial hygienists wanted to share what lessons can be learned from the tragedy with attendees this week at the American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Expo in San Diego.

Bruce D. Groves with Emilcott Associates, a Chatham, N.J., environmental, safety and industrial hygiene consulting firm, lists four lesson for safety and health professional should they encounter a similar situation as found in Lower Manhattan:

Recognize the transition from crisis to post-crisis. When planning an emergency response program, understand that procedures will be different for dealing with an incident once the crisis has passed. How the procedures change will depend on the situation.

Plan for the unexpected. Groves noted how organizations who do emergency planning for a living were unprepared for dealing with the aftermath of Sept. 11. Consider every emergency scenario possible and how the company will respond to each situation.

Never outright condone what is wrong. This may seem obvious, but Groves recalls how some workers at the WTC site weren't always told that their respirators would not provide complete protection because their beards kept the masks from forming a proper seal. The argument was that an improperly fitted respirator is better than none at all. Instead, he said, inform the worker that he will not have complete protection.

When given the chance, take a leadership role. "Don't be afraid to use your training and experience to make a difference," said Groves, who worked at the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island, where debris was taken from the WTC site to be sorted.

Jonathan Rosen, MS, CIH, of the New York State Public Employees Federation, AFL-CIO, also provided lessons learned after helping out at Ground Zero:

  • Disaster plans should include contingencies to "set up shop" elsewhere. Be prepared to coordinate operations remotely in the event your main location is shut down.
  • Be prepared to assist survivors and families of victims, including helping with filing paperwork for workers' compensation and death benefits.
  • Risk communication, internally and externally, is critical. Don't just tell employees there is an "incident," Rosen said. "You want to be as open as you can about what is going on so you can allay any fears."
  • Coordinate emergency response plans ahead of time with local, city, state and federal agencies. Don't wait for a disaster to occur to form these relationships, Rosen said.
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