Flexibility and Hazard Knowledge Needed for Disaster Responders

Safety professionals discussed their experiences in emergency response during and after hurricanes Harvey and Maria.

"When Disaster Strikes: OS&H Professional Support During the Hurricane Harvey Response" on May 22 at the 2018 American Industrial Hygiene Conference & Expo centered on the experiences of safety professionals in the response to Hurricanes Harvey and Maria in 2017. Speakers Craig Groman, United States Coast Guard IMAT, and Edward Primeau, USCG Atlantic Strike Team, discussed their experiences with the aftermath in and around Houston, Texas, while Laura Weems, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spoke on the recovery efforts in Puerto Rico.

Groman spoke on many of the hazards faced by his team during his time as safety officer on the Hurricane Harvey response, including fuels, household hazardous waste, fecal and sewage contaminated water, and even concerns about alligators escaping from local alligator farms during flooding.

In an emergency, Groman said, it's often difficult to take the best-practice safety precautions. For example, many volunteers helping with the search and rescue efforts were limited to whatever PPE they had been able to find, which may not have been the correct type or amount of protection. Groman said one way to mitigate this problem is to have medical professionals immediately available for the emergency response team to make sure illness and injury don't escalate, and to document and track exposures that do happen to workers.

Primeau discussed the Coast Guard's efforts to remove pollution threats from the waterways in Texas and the cooperation and flexibility required in disaster response. The Coast Guard worked with many local, Texas, and federal agencies and had to keep the lines of communication open, often calling on locals for their knowledge of the area and environmental hazards. They updated their Incident Action Plan every four days with new information on current and emerging hazards.

Weems spoke on the unpredictability of some disaster response situations and the need to quickly adapt to new situations; for example, she said that many of the Army Corps of Engineers' workers had to be trained on-site for safety and health procedures. Looking toward the future, Weems suggested requiring more pre-assignment training for workers and supervisors on anticipating hazards, saying that hazardous waste operations knowledge was needed.

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