June 11, 2020 / Mark Ames

Natural Disasters, COVID-19, and Occupational Health and Safety

It’s enough to give you pause: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center forecasts an above-normal 2020 Atlantic hurricane season. The season began June 1, and already Tropical Storm Cristobal has caused flooding and evacuations. The confluence of hazards from the COVID-19 pandemic and natural disasters creates a unique set of workplace and community health and safety challenges that occupational health and safety professionals are well-suited to address.

Occupational health and safety professionals play vital roles in emergency preparedness, response, and recovery, including:

  • participating in the pre-planning for an incident
  • identifying and prioritizing the types of hazards that may be encountered during or after a disaster, and what to do to help mitigate those hazards
  • developing and implementing exposure assessment methods
  • collecting and analyzing data
  • developing and implementing personnel decontamination procedures
  • serving as technical liaisons with medical and other professionals on occupational and environmental health and safety issues
  • advising, developing, and implementing remediation activities for a facility
  • effectively communicating risks to responders, policymakers, other stakeholders, and the media

Here are three helpful resources for AIHA members and those who may be affected by a disaster:

  • AIHA’s Disaster Response Resource Center
  • AIHA’s guidance document on Health and Safety Issues in Natural Disasters (PDF)
  • AIHA’s white paper on Industrial Hygienists’ Role and Responsibilities in Emergency Preparedness and Response (PDF)

FEMA and CDC have prepared documents and recordings on COVID-19 and hurricane preparedness that are useful for OHS professionals, policymakers, families, and community leaders. While focused on hurricanes, the advice and resources contained in these publications are also relevant for floods, wildfires, and earthquakes.

Some of the main takeaways from these publications are that the dual hazards of COVID-19 and natural disasters require additional planning and PPE, potentially placing greater stress on the supply chain, as well as social distancing, education, training, and reinforcement of training. The challenges will become greater if a disaster occurs during or near an outbreak of COVID-19. This could certainly happen during hurricane season as businesses reopen and people gather in public spaces to enjoy the warmer weather.

Measures that businesses put in place to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 will also likely be helpful should a disaster strike. Be sure to check out AIHA’s Back to Work Safely guidance documents. Each of the voluntary guidelines is industry-specific, free for everyone, 10 pages or less, and written for smaller businesses that might not have access to an OHS professional. AIHA has developed 20 of the guidelines, with more on the way, so be sure to check back frequently.

Mark Ames

Mark Ames is AIHA’s director of Government Relations.

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