As communities in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands recover from the devastation of Hurricanes Maria and Irma, the NIEHS Worker Training Program (WTP) is developing local expertise to deliver health and safety training, and foster resilience.
Using experiences from previous disasters, WTP grantees and NIEHS staff are partnering with local organizations to assess needs of residents and increase the number of trainees in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
"Our program provides training on work and disaster-related hazards," said WTP Director Joseph "Chip" Hughes. Grantees are helping workers, homeowners, and community members protect themselves from exposures to mold, asbestos, lead, carbon monoxide, sewage, infectious diseases, and other hazards.
"We're also addressing the need for mental health resilience as communities deal with stress from lack of power, clean water, and sufficient food," Hughes added. In January, he visited affected areas in Puerto Rico, met with key stakeholders, and observed trainings performed by grantees.
Promoting mental health resiliency
As a WTP grantee with more than 12,000 members in Puerto Rico, the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) learned that workers were experiencing high levels of stress while coping with disaster recovery and were returning to work in difficult and sometimes unsafe conditions.
During the week of Jan. 22, UAW held three resiliency trainings(https://tools.niehs.nih.gov/wetp/index.cfm?id=2528) for members who work in laboratories, hospitals, and school cafeterias, as well as those going into the field to address the health and social service needs of hurricane victims.
"There is a huge need for resilience training in Puerto Rico right now," said Matt Uptmor, a UAW trainer. "These workshops helped participants understand triggers of stress during and after disasters and provided them with techniques to cope with anxiety, and build mental resilience."
Expanding network of trainers
WTP grantees have collaborated with local groups across Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to promote disaster resiliency and to train residents who could potentially deliver training as recovery efforts continue.
The International Chemical Workers Union Council (ICWUC) collaborated with four groups to host a train-the-trainer course for local students and workers.
- University of Puerto Rico (UPR) Medical Sciences Campus.
- National Council of Occupational Health and Safety.
- Labor Council for Latin American Advancement.
- American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.
"On top of being able to more effectively train adults, our students will now be able to contribute to the betterment of environmental safety and health across Puerto Rico, in the present and in the years to come," said Sergio Caporali, Ph.D., from UPR.
The Steelworkers Charitable and Educational Organization's Tony Mazzocchi Center (TMC) partnered with Universidad Metropolitana and All Hands and Hearts, a nonprofit organization, to deliver training in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
TMC training in the U.S. Virgin Islands provided volunteers with skills to protect themselves during clean-up and recovery efforts, such as selecting and using appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). In addition, TMC training in Puerto Rico focused on promoting hazard awareness and disaster resiliency among locals in San Juan and the mountain community of Utuado.
Distribute equipment, gather volunteers
World Cares Center (WCC), a member of the grantee New Jersey/New York Hazardous Materials Worker Training Center, is helping develop Volunteer Reception Centers across Puerto Rico. WCC Executive Director Lisa Orloff explained that the centers are key locations to distribute PPE, and gather and train survivors, students, leaders, and others.
"These volunteers are being trained on health and safety principles that involve mucking and gutting, mold suppression, and community assessments," she said.
(Kenda Freeman is a research and communication specialist for MDB, Inc., a contractor for the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training.)