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Rescue, recovery workers face risks



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For scores of rescue and recovery workers in areas hard hit by Katrina, the hazards are many.

John Molenda, chief financial officer with Safety Solutions in Boynton Beach, Fla., returned this week from helping with recovery efforts in Mississippi. He is still stunned by the devastation and the potential safety risks.

"It's very, very dangerous," says Molenda, whose company, which consults and provides training on dealing with hazards, has been working with government agencies to provide services in Katrina areas. "We went to the World Trade Center, but that was one event. This is widespread, a multitude of states."

Dangerous wildlife lurks in devastated regions; rescue workers came across a 10-foot alligator in a culvert, he says. Snakes, spiders and other insects are thriving in the New Orleans area. There is also fetid water laced with E. coli bacteria, lead, unknown chemicals, natural gas leaks and other chemical and biological hazards.

Rotting chicken has been left behind from some chicken warehouses. Human bodies might lie beneath demolished buildings and homes.

There are many workers in the New Orleans area, as well as in flood-ravaged counties in Mississippi and Alabama -- from National Guard troops to the American Red Cross to private companies beginning recovery or working to restore power and other essential services. More than 17,000 volunteer medical personnel have registered with Health and Human Services to assist in recovery, and more than 43,000 National Guard members are on the ground in three states, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) says organized data on injuries, illnesses and fatalities of rescue and recovery workers will be compiled, but no data are available yet. There have been two known fatalities: an employee in Mississippi who worked for a power company died when a pole fell on him; and a power company worker in Louisiana was electrocuted while working on a power line.

Keeping rescue and recovery workers safe from the multitude of health hazards -- risks that will linger even as rebuilding begins -- has meant decontamination units on the ground, special safety suits and respirators, counseling to deal with the emotional fallout and, in many cases, gallons of bleach. A major issue is the potential for physical injuries from the recovery work. There is also the emotional stress brought on by retrieving bodies and witnessing the devastation first hand.

"The psychological trauma and stress is significantly more pronounced for this disaster than for 9/11," says Rich Chaifetz, CEO of ComPsych, a Chicago-based provider of employee assistance services that is providing on-the-ground counseling, as well as phone consultations. "We're seeing the need for psychological support at an unprecedented level."

Some of what's being done:

*OSHA is offering public assistance with safety issues for the thousands of workers involved in clean-up and recovery. They've put together public service announcements on the safety concerns with a toll-free number, 800-321-OSHA, for employers and workers to call. Other announcements will deal with specific hazards such as mold, falls and electrical risks.

In addition, OSHA is contacting major power companies in affected areas to provide safety briefings to employees at power-restoration staging areas. They've provided technical assistance to 1,000 crews involved in utility restoration and distributed 3,500 fliers on safety issues following the hurricane.

"The Department of Labor has already dispatched teams of OSHA professionals to the devastated regions to help ensure that the restoration of power and telecommunications facilities and infrastructures are done in a safe way," Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said in an e-mailed statement. "They will continue to be in the region for as long as it takes to ensure the health and safety of workers involved in the rescue, recovery and rebuilding efforts."

*Phil Monaghan, a safety manager in Jackson, Miss., with the National Guard, says risk assessments are discussed with soldiers before each mission. Safety instructions include wearing safety glasses, rubber gloves, not picking up debris and being wary of copperhead and water moccasin poisonous snakes. Military exercises conducted every three years means many guard members are kept current on many vaccinations, including tetanus.

Guard members are handling such jobs as cleaning road debris and accompanying local police.

*Psychological experts and medical personnel dispatched through the International Association of Fire Fighters are on the way or on the ground to aid first-responders in the Gulf Coast region.

The response programs focus on concerns such as vaccinations and depression or post-traumatic stress disorders.

Despite such efforts, injuries already are occurring. Maurice Ramirez is a doctor in Kissimmee, Fla., who works in national disaster medical assistance. He has been rotating into the Katrina-affected area, and recently returned from New Orleans. Rescue workers are coming in with broken legs, sprained ankles, sunburn and foot infections they've contracted after wading through the floodwaters.

Safety is critical, he says. Even the uniforms Ramirez has worn are "red bagged" -- that is, put in biohazard bags. In addition, he says there are ongoing concerns about chemicals and petroleum byproducts in the water that can be flammable or carcinogenic. Both are present because of the heavy industry in the area.

"The scope of this disaster and it's effect are different (than others)," he says. "(New Orleans) is, in effect, in the bottom of a bowl. Nothing can run off; it all has to be pumped out."

But for some workers, the rebuilding and recovery tasks are also personal.

Spencer Coudray, 56, is an ironworker foreman who has been working to build a steel frame designed to hold a crude dam. His home in New Orleans was flooded.

"This will help my house," he says, gesturing across the floodwaters toward his neighborhood. "It will help drain my area of the city. A lot of guys feel like that. We live here."

Contributing: Alan Levin in New Orleans

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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