Putting safety first among second responders

Preparation and training can protect those working in the aftermath of a disaster

  • Second responders often assist first responders by performing critical tasks such as clearing debris or shutting down utilities to create a safe work area for rescue and recovery efforts.
  • Common hazards encountered in the aftermath of a disaster include working in unfamiliar terrain, electrical hazards and inclement weather.
  • Because disaster situations differ so widely from normal operations, experts contend that preperation, training and thorough briefing of the situation is critical to protecting worker safety in a disaster zone.

By Lauretta Claussen, associate editor

When a tornado leveled the town of Joplin, MO, in May, news outlets were filled with images of families seeking loved ones and others mourning those who had died. First responders were shown rushing to the scene, finding and treating survivors, and striving to maintain order in the devastated town.

But what happens when the critical first response work is completed – once the victims have been transported, the injured treated and fires suppressed? The workers on the scene in the days, weeks and months after a disaster see less of the limelight. Second responders work to clean up the ravages of a disaster area, stabilize infrastructure and help return regions to normal operations. Although they may not literally be putting out fires, those who work in construction, utilities and public works play a vital role in disaster recovery – and face multiple safety hazards while doing so. 

A coordinated effort

The work of second responders is so vital that John Devlin, safety director of the Washington-based Utility Workers Union of America, objects to the term. “I look at them as first responders,” Devlin said. “They’re definitely on the scene assisting the police and the firemen and the EMTs. They are certainly a valuable asset to them as well as the communities.”

The work of second responders, he said, “benefits everyone involved [in disaster recovery efforts], including police, firemen and EMTs. Because [in] a lot of situations they need our knowledge and our help before they can enter into a situation.”

Indeed, second responders often assist first responders by performing critical tasks such as clearing debris or shutting down utilities to create a safe work area for rescue and recovery efforts.

In most disaster situations, first responders recognize the valuable role second responders play and coordinate their efforts closely with them, Devlin said. “Between the police and the firemen, once they size up a situation, they know who needs to be involved – gas company, electric company, water – whatever the situation may be,” he said. “Protocol and the lines of communication have to be kept up.”

The concerns

Even when a disaster is over, serious dangers still exist. Potential hazards include carbon monoxide exposure, thermal stresses, electrical hazards and musculoskeletal injuries.

“Each emergency is different,” said Jim Woodey, national program manager for safety and occupational health emergency planning and response for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Yet the risks involved often are quite similar.

“The physical hazards in a lot of cases are pretty much the same, just the reason they’re there is different,” Woodey said. “It could be an earthquake, it could be a flood, it could be a hurricane, it could be a terrorist attack, but a lot of the same hazards are there.”

Some of the more common hazards that workers encounter in the aftermath of a disaster are:

Unfamiliar terrain – In a large-scale emergency, workers are called in from all across the country to assist – often to areas they are not familiar with. Workers may not be in-tune with hazards specific to certain geographic areas. Situations that involve floodwaters can be especially dangerous, as these waters may be covering dangerous objects, holes or electrical hazards. OSHA recommends performing a preliminary worksite inspection before entering any buildings or areas that have been damaged by a disaster.

Electrocution – Many workers have died of electrocution in the aftermath of natural disasters, according to NIOSH. Storms often lead to downed power lines, and residents commonly resort to using portable electric generators – both of which can pose serious risks to workers. Improperly sized, installed or operated generators can cause backfeed in electrical lines that can seriously injure repair workers. To prevent the risk of electrocution, workers should treat all power lines as “hot” until voltage tests have been performed. Workers should never be permitted to repair power lines without proper personal protective equipment.

Weather – When workers responded to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, some reported illnesses from exposure to oil, but it was exposure to the extreme heat that caused most workers to become ill. Heat-related illnesses such as heat stroke can be fatal, warns the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and exposure to ultraviolet rays can lead to dangerous conditions such as skin cancer and cataracts. Working in cold weather also presents serious hazards, including the risk of frostbite and hypothermia, for workers who are not properly attired and trained to recognize warning signs.

Insects and animals – People working outdoors – particularly in disaster areas with high levels of water – run the risk of encountering dangerous insects, snakes or other animals. When workers encounter displaced snakes or animals, the best course of action is to avoid them, CDC recommends. If a worker is bitten, seek medical treatment immediately. Do not assume a bite is not dangerous or a snake is not poisonous. To protect against insects that may be carrying dangerous diseases such as the West Nile virus, CDC recommends wearing insect repellent, long pants and a long-sleeved shirt.

Fatigue – Working to get communities up and running again in the aftermath of an emergency is a taxing process and one that requires long hours on the job. Companies literally may work around the clock to restore power, clear debris or dissipate floodwaters. A major hazard in these situations is worker fatigue. According to NIOSH, one of the most important things workers can do is pace themselves to avoid overexertion. Workers should take frequent breaks before allowing exhaustion to build up and create a dangerous work situation.


Handling these hazards is easier when workers are well-briefed about the situation. Preparation is critical, experts say, because in a disaster situation, protocols can differ greatly from standard operations.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers teaches classes that focus on emergency operations. Because the classes are attended by safety and health professionals, training exercises avoid dispensing standard occupational safety lessons, and instead focus specifically on how to respond in a disaster. “That’s what stresses people out,” Woodey said. “They know their job but they don’t know exactly what’s expected of them on-site.”

In addition to providing training on safe operations, employers should ensure workers are physically prepared. CDC recommends immunizations for people working in disaster areas, in addition to having proper PPE on-site. Although the immunization recommendations may vary depending on particular circumstances, a tetanus booster shot should be given to workers who have not received one in the past 10 years. A hepatitis B vaccination also is recommended for responders handling patients or working in situations where contact with bodily fluid is likely.

USACE conducts medical screenings every two years to ensure workers are healthy enough to be deployed to a disaster site. It also plans for missions before they are even called. For example, even though USACE services were not required to assist in the cleanup of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, protocols for response were established in case workers were summoned. 

“If we had an earthquake, for example, and we knew we would get a mission out of it because it was huge, we would be on alert right away,” Woodey said. “We would be standing with suitcase in hand waiting for the call to come in, so to speak.”

Setting up field operations

Assisting all workers
Once the imminent disaster is over and second responders have begun to secure the area, the safety of those who work at businesses impacted by the disaster becomes a concern.

Employers need to know how to quickly develop a chain of command in the field to give workers a clear understanding of what is to be done and who is in charge on the scene.

Woodey said the “real-time risk management” is done in the field office. He establishes offices in the field that are similar to the district office, featuring all of the normal departments in the organization used for standard operations. “It has all the disciplines in it,” he said. “It has safety, it has security, it has public affairs, operations, engineering. All these things we need to function properly.”

USACE also has established requirements for any contract workers, including the need for a safety plan, hazard analysis and PPE.

“All of the normal contractual stuff that the Army Corps of Engineers utilizes in its normal day-to-day processes are utilized,” Woodey said. “The big difference in an emergency operation is that we place safety and health professionals in the field at the emergency to assist with questions, interpretations – anything that needs assistance safety- and health-wise right away.”

Long-term hazard awareness

Being aware of the hazards on the ground is only the first step in managing the safety of a workforce in a disaster area. Employers also need to consider potential long-term hazards.

Numerous studies have shown that workers who responded to the terrorist attacks on 9/11 have suffered a variety of health issues, including sensory loss, auto-immune disease, respiratory issues and heart problems. One cause of the problem may be that workers’ efforts to act quickly in the face of a disaster caused them to lose focus on their own safety and forgo PPE – such as respirators.
“I think through education, people are becoming more aware, but our concern is that human element of ‘It won’t happen to me,’” Devlin said. “I think that human element is always going to be there, but I do believe communication and the knowledge of the long-term effects of what an exposure can do to you is definitely getting better.”

Monitoring worker health is another measure that can be taken to ensure worker health, and one USACE found especially helpful in the aftermath of 9/11. “Anyone who was working around ground zero for a certain length of time [was] given a post-medical questionnaire to complete,” Woodey said. “Depending on if there was a red flag on one of those answers, whoever they were, they were signed up for a hands-on physical to make sure there wasn’t – or was, whatever the case – any issues that needed to be looked at.”

No worker from USACE had any long-term health issues stemming from 9/11, which Woodey attributed, in part, to this close medical monitoring.

Sharing experiences

Because there is no real way to know what situations workers may encounter in the aftermath of a disaster, one of the best training tools, Devlin believes, is sharing experiences and stories.

Since 2000, the Utility Workers Union of America has been involved in a program called Systems of Safety, where trainers ask workers to share their experiences rather than preaching from a safety manual. “The people facilitating the class are not the ‘resident experts,’” Devlin said. “We basically rely on both union and management people to participate in the program to have them tell us what they have seen, what they anticipate and how they think the situation should be dealt with.”

The training, he said, should be as inclusive as possible. In a post-disaster environment, many agencies, unions and companies on the ground carry out their individual duties.

Devlin contends that the best way to ensure safety is for all of these components to be working together, well aware of what the others are doing. “Safety is safety. It’s everybody’s concern,” he said. “I believe that working collectively, sitting down and sharing those experiences, and developing those procedures that make us as prepared as we can be benefits everyone involved. You can anticipate what to expect, but until you actually physically climb down that hole, you don’t know what is waiting for you.”

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