NIOSH Issues Health Hazard Evaluation Report on Hurricane Katrina Response

NIOSH recently released a health hazard evaluation report that summarizes the occupational health activities of the NIOSH Hurricane Katrina response personnel and highlights the findings and recommendations that were made to workers, employers and agencies in Louisiana.

NIOSH responders were deployed to New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La., in September and October 2005 to assist federal, state, and local agencies in addressing occupational safety and health issues, to perform health and injury surveillance and exposure assessments among workers, to perform outreach to vulnerable workers and to develop and disseminate occupational health information. Three teams of personnel responded to numerous requests for assistance in evaluating exposures to mold, chemicals, biological agents, floodwaters, dust and dried flood sediment, flood debris, and noise.

While the devastation in New Orleans may have been on a much larger scale than previous hurricanes and floods, many of the issues faced were, in fact, similar to past incidences of flooding elsewhere, NIOSH stated. In particular, concerns regarding health effects due to mold exposures in flooded homes and businesses were commonly brought to the attention of occupational health team members. In addition to mold, concerns of exposures to harmful chemical and biological agents were abundant.

While environmental sampling by occupational health team members typically did not reveal contaminant levels above recognized occupational exposure limits, the ability and capacity of employers and employees to recognize and evaluate these hazards was quite variable. NIOSH stated that it is imperative to develop the capacity of contractors to safeguard the safety and health of their workers prior to such work so that they can successfully implement effective programs during often chaotic disaster conditions.

The unions expressed concerns over unaddressed safety issues to occupational health team members. Oftentimes, it appeared that safety violations were committed in the rush of contractors to do as much work as possible in the shortest amount of time, NIOSH stated. This included common violations such as overloading trucks and hauling debris without tarps so that large chunks of debris (entire mattresses, dressers, large pieces of metal) fell from the trucks; traveling too fast at or near debris dump sites; and lack of professional safety staff and other resources on site. Qualified safety professionals are needed as a key component of companies' occupational health program for work in disaster areas, NIOSH stated.

The report, "Evaluation of occupational hazards in the construction and service sectors in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina," can be accessed in PDF format at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/hhe/reports/pdfs/2005-0369-3034.pdf.

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