In the wake of 2017’s devastating hurricanes, the NIEHS Worker Training Program (WTP) is helping protect the health of workers and volunteers exposed to mold, chemical contamination, and other hazards(1MB). “We are part of the larger federal response through the National Disaster Recovery Framework,” explained WTP Director Joseph “Chip” Hughes Jr.
WTP includes grants and resources to equip workers with the knowledge, skills, and tools to protect themselves when handling hazardous materials. Grants support a national network of organizations that develop and deliver training.
Muck and gut
Once floods subside, wet and contaminated materials are removed from homes and buildings in a process called muck and gut. Widespread flooding, such as Houston experienced after Hurricane Harvey, may carry biological and chemical contaminants.
The World Cares Center (WCC) trained workers who would be mucking and gutting in Houston. WCC is part of the New Jersey-New York Hazardous Materials Worker Training Center, a WTP awardee. “We began to train groups deploying in response to Harvey pre-landfall, in the greater New York area,” said Lisa Orloff, who founded WCC after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“Disaster response is challenging at best, with a vast ecosystem of responders, from workers and survivors who step up to help, to nonprofits and government agencies,” she said. “Being a part of the NIEHS family has provided critical support to the grassroots communities WCC serves.”
Mold and health
Molds may release mycotoxins, which can be blocked by coveralls, gloves, respirators, and other personal protective equipment (PPE). Inhaling, ingesting, or absorbing mycotoxins through the skin can lead to symptoms that range from eye and nose irritation to inflammation and scarring of the lungs, according to WTP.
As parts of Houston were still underwater, the International Chemical Workers Union Council (ICWUC), another WTP grantee, provided mold removal training in two North Carolina counties still recovering from Hurricane Matthew’s floods in 2016.
WTP Public Health Educator Demia Wright explained that the Sept. 6-7 training was planned long before Hurricane Harvey struck. “Local entities [in North Carolina] realized the scope of the mold problem and the need for additional expertise,” she said.
The following week, Wright, Hughes, and others headed to Texas. “The mission assignment from the Department of Health and Human Services is to assess training needs and develop a plan,” said Wright. “With their networks in place, WTP grantees initiated training just two weeks after the disaster struck.”
ICWUC delivered a three-day Train-the-Trainer course, collaborating with local worker center Fe y Justicia. “The group targeted those who could train day laborers, faith groups, volunteer groups, and residents,” Wright said. “Not all of them know how to protect themselves from the risks.”
Resources — equipment, curricula, networks
Networks also came through for the Texas-Utah Consortium for Hazardous Waste Worker Education and Training. The University of Utah sent partner University of Texas Health Sciences Center at Houston (UTH) a shipment of 1,000 N95 respirators, which fit the face very closely and filter fine particles.
By the third week of September, 800 people had received the respirators, along with training on how to use them, according to Janelle Rios, Ph.D., from UTH. Materials from the WTP Clearinghouse (see sidebar) were also helpful. “The clearinghouse has been absolutely fabulous,” she said, highlighting two booklets offered in both English and Spanish — “Mold Cleanup and Treatment” and “Protecting Yourself While Helping Others.”
Mitchel Rosen, Ph.D., said local community connections are invaluable in Puerto Rico. Hurricane Maria was the second hurricane to hit the island in two weeks. The Rutgers University Office of Public Health Practice, which Rosen directs, houses the New Jersey-New York Hazardous Materials Worker Training Center. Puerto Rico’s Universidad Metropolitana is a long-time partner on that grant.
“Providing resources to implement quickly on an island is much harder,” Rosen said. Without electricity and internet, materials in the clearinghouse were unavailable. “Irma took out 70 percent of the power,” Rosen said. “And Maria took the rest.”
Rosen emphasized that once they are able to get to work on the island, resiliency training(https://tools.niehs.nih.gov/wetp/index.cfm?id=2528) will be essential. “Individuals dealing with these disasters on a personal basis, and as a volunteer or worker, really need to protect their mental health,” he said.
Rosen flew into Houston on September 11. “Being from the New York-New Jersey area and flying into a disaster on September 11, it’s abundantly clear that you need to have these tools in your toolbox to deal with the emotional side of things.”
“It’s all about relationships,” he emphasized. Trusted partnerships — with health departments, faith leaders, and community groups, for example — make for a faster start. “They need to be in place ahead of time because they can’t be developed on the fly,” he said.