The NIEHS Worker Training Program (WTP) helped those involved in cleaning up after California’s 2017 and 2018 wildfires and mudslides safely handle the hazardous materials they could encounter. WTP serves communities after wildfires, hurricanes (see sidebar), and other natural and manmade disasters.
WTP develops training tools for those who perform hazardous material removal, transportation, emergency response, and related activities. The program develops model courses, and its awardees deliver peer-led, hands-on instruction, as well as comprehensive train-the-trainer programs.
“We have developed a network of nonprofit organizations who are committed to protecting the safety and health of workers, through the curricula they develop and the training they deliver,” said WTP Director Joseph “Chip” Hughes. “That includes the scientific basis for how we protect workers and the health impacts of exposures.”
“Successful training partnerships ensure that many groups are involved, so there is input from labor, management, and local government,” added WTP Industrial Hygienist Sharon Beard.
California wildfires and mudslides
Through the HAZMAT Disaster Preparedness Training Program, WTP awardee Center for Construction Research and Training funds groups such as the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE). According to IUOE, the California Environmental Protection Agency warned residents affected by the 2017 wildfires not to sort through debris and ash until trained teams first removed the hazardous waste.
IUOE taught workers from the Santa Rosa area how to handle such materials in a safe manner. Barbara McCabe from IUOE said they encountered fire debris that contained dangerous materials like those listed below.
- Gasoline, propane, and other flammable liquids.
- Electronic waste, such as computers and monitors.
Heavy metals in ash
- Asbestos in stucco, sheetrock and joint compounds, cement pipe, and exterior siding.
- Treated wood containing cooper, chromium, and arsenic.
Speaking of the intense 2018 fire season, McCabe said, “We expect the training pace to pick up as fires die down and cleanup progresses.”
Day laborers in Graton, west of Santa Rosa, attended a course led by the University of California at Berkeley Labor Occupational Health Program (LOHP), which is a member of the Western Region Universities Consortium (WRUC).
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) provided Disaster Site Worker Training to 23 individuals in Northern California who, in turn, trained 146 residents to protect themselves and properly manage hazardous materials. Another 82 workers learned how to work safely in confined spaces.
“The focus of concern for health effects is often on first responders and affected homeowners, yet those who comprise the often invisible workforce, are also affected,” said Linda Delp, Ph.D., WRUC lead researcher and director of the University of California at Los Angeles Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program.
“We are coordinating roundtable discussions to bring together agency, worker, and community representatives,” she added. “Enhanced coordination will go a long way towards promoting safety as part of preparedness, response, and cleanup efforts.”
In Southern California, where mudslides followed disastrous wildfires last year, IUOE trained 310 workers to safely handle ash and debris while protecting themselves from household chemicals, lead-based paint on old houses, silica in dry mud, and other threats.
WTP programs target low-income residents of communities affected by disasters or contamination, so graduates can work on local cleanups. Afterwards, their certificates and experience may lead to better jobs.
For example, Jean-Pierre Muzac used his certificate to work for cleanup contractors as an environmental technician and site manager. “He credits the 40-hour HAZWOPER [Hazardous Waste Operations Emergency Response] class for starting him on his successful career pathway,” wrote IBT Program Manager Chee Chang in September, adding that Muzac said the class changed his life.
NIEHS resources, such as a training booklet and fact sheet, as well as links to information from other federal agencies, are collected on the WTP Wildfires(https://tools.niehs.nih.gov/wetp/index.cfm?id=2455) web page.