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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

April 2020

Protecting workers during the COVID-19 outbreak

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NIEHS Worker Training Program showcased strategies to protect frontline workers, during a virtual workshop.

Joseph (“Chip”) Hughes “These men and women … work so hard to serve and protect the public during this COVID-19 pandemic, I want to make sure they know how to protect their own health, too,” Hughes said of workers in high-risk occupations. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Strategies to prevent spread of COVID-19 and protect frontline workers were front and center during the 2020 Worker Training Program (WTP) virtual workshop(https://tools.niehs.nih.gov/wetp/events.cfm?id=2588) March 17. Federal agency representatives, infectious disease experts, and health and safety professionals shared timely information.

The workshop was originally scheduled to take place in Atlanta. WTP Director Joseph (“Chip”) Hughes said that after consultation with the Emory Woodruff Health Sciences Center and broadly considering the risks and impacts of a face-to-face meeting during the pandemic response, organizers pivoted in just a few short days to host a virtual forum instead.

SARS-CoV-2, a novel pathogen

WTP has a long history of training and preparing workers who face potential exposure to hazardous pathogens, such as swine flu and Ebola. WTP’s national network of trainers and experts will prove critical in protecting first responders and other front-line workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Workshop speakers discussed transmission of SARS-CoV-2, which is the virus that causes COVID-19, as well as worker protections, and federal, state, and local training efforts.

“We are constantly learning more about COVID-19,” said Richard Hunt, M.D., from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness. “We must be flexible and willing to adapt our training, because what you trained for last time might not work this time.”

Timeline of Events: WTP Activation for COVID-19 Training, January - March 2020

This timeline, which Hughes shared with workshop participants, underscores Hunt’s observation about the need to be flexible as the situation evolves. (Photo courtesy of NIEHS)

Alex Isakov, M.D. Isakov is a professor and emergency medicine physician at Emory University. In 2014, he played an instrumental role in transporting and caring for American aid workers brought to Atlanta after being infected with the Ebola virus. (Photo courtesy of Alex Isakov)

Alexander Isakov, M.D., lead researcher for WTP grantee Emory University, underscored the need for agile preparedness and response with this novel pathogen. He described the National Biodefense Strategy as a framework with goals that correspond to WTP objectives to protect the workforce and support local communities.

Training, preparedness, response

WTP grantees supported by the Ebola Biosafety and Infectious Disease Response Training Program shared how they apply lessons from past experiences to adapt training for emergency responders and environmental service workers. The program was funded through a $10 million transfer to WTP via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention using Ebola emergency supplemental appropriations. (View the slideshow below for photos from past trainings.)

Keynote speaker Lisa Brosseau, Sc.D., retired professor from the University of Illinois at Chicago, discussed the likelihood of close-range aerosol exposure to SARS-CoV-2, inherent risks for workers, and necessary protocols for protection. “Analyze control methods across all levels,” she said. “We can’t change the toxicity of the organism, so we have to decrease exposure. Workers that face the highest risk need the highest levels of protection.” Kevin Riley, Ph.D., from WTP grantee the Western Region Universities Consortium, described the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration Aerosol Transmissible Diseases Standard. He explained how it relates to novel pathogens like SARS-COV-2 and can be used to protect workers in high-risk settings.

colorized micrograph of a cell heavily infected with SARS-CoV-2 virus particles Colorized micrograph of a cell, green, heavily infected with SARS-CoV-2 virus particles, pink. The cell is in the state of apoptosis, or programmed cell death. (Photo courtesy of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

Managing challenges

A key challenge is the shortage of respirators and other personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care, law enforcement, and transportation workers. Capt. Lisa Delaney, associate director for emergency preparedness and response at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) said her agency is partnering with other agencies to address ways to optimize PPE supplies in the face of shortages. NIOSH is also developing guidance, fact sheets, and communication materials for workplaces.

Selin Hobby, from Stericycle, and Chris Brown, from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, took up the other end of the pipeline — management of biohazard waste. They highlighted open communication, accessible resources, and implementation of company protocols as tools to support proper waste management.

Managing perceptions and stress present additional challenges. “Because we are compulsively drawn to the latest information about COVID-19, incorporating free time away from news and media is key to managing stress,” said Gordon Tuttle, Ph.D., from Emory University. He emphasized the importance of self-care and social connections to alleviate stress for workers and the public.

NIH/NIEHS WTP COVID-19 Virtual Safety Training Initiative

Hughes described the objectives of the WTP training initiative that is funded with $10 million appropriated in March. (Photo courtesy of NIEHS)

Long-term process

“We know this will be a long-term process,” said Hughes. “Training for front-line workers will continue to be our priority and focus.” In addition to ongoing coordination with federal partners, WTP is working with private sector partners to launch an online training and learning platform for COVID-19.

WTP will continue close coordination with partners, Hughes added, to ensure that activities funded by the 2020 Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act are complementary and support the highest priority of response to protect COVID-19 frontline workers.

(Kenda Freeman is a research and communication specialist for MDB, Inc., a contractor for the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training.)


people participate in infectious disease training The United Steelworkers Tony Mazzochi Center (USW TMC) collaborated with the Communication Workers of America to deliver an infectious disease train-the-trainer course. (Photo courtesy of USW TMC)
fire and emergency medical services personnel receive training Trainers from the Duke Infectious Disease Response Training Consortium provided infectious disease training to fire and emergency medical services personnel in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of Duke University)
students in the Cypress Mandela Training Center Students in the Cypress Mandela Training Center pre-apprenticeship program received infectious disease awareness courses supported by International Chemical Workers Union Council (ICWUC) in partnership with the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. (Photo courtesy of ICWUC)
attendees watch presentation of Protecting Yourself from Opioid Waste Exposures a nd Associated Infectious Diseases The Biosafety and Infectious Disease Training Initiative at Indiana University at Bloomington addressed infectious diseases spread through the opioid epidemic. (Photo courtesy of Indiana University at Bloomington)
people prepare for mass casualty event Deep South Biosafety Worker Training Program, from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), worked with the Alabama State Mortuary Operations Team, a volunteer group that prepares for mass casualty events. (Photo courtesy of UAB)
trainers from the Laborers’ International Union of North America Trainers from the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) celebrated completion of a pathogen safety data course, using curriculum developed by NIEHS. (Photo courtesy of LIUNA)
Universidad Metropolitana in Puerto Rico trainer teaches first responders Trainers from the Universidad Metropolitana (UMET) in Puerto Rico trained first responders on PPE use. UMET is part of the New Jersey-New York Hazardous Materials Worker Training Center, Rutgers University. (Photo courtesy of UMET)
emergency medical responders receive training by an ambulance Emory’s Infectious Disease Worker Training Program trained emergency medical responders in high consequence infectious disease operations. Emory works closely with American Medical Response, Air Methods Corporation, and other partners. (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Rosen)
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