Health & Safety: In the midst of a disaster!

disaster response(Photo Source: Google)

Under any disaster situation, the immediate disaster responders have to work in a very close proximity with the victims. Besides there is high probability that the circumstances under which they are performing the job, inherently carry certain level of risks due to hazardous conditions involved.

During the Gorkha Earthquake 2015, we closely witnessed national and international search and rescue teams working so hard to save lives, sometimes even risking their own. With frequent earthquake tremors and surrounded by vulnerable structures, without doubt the rescue teams had extremely tough task in their hands. Here we should not forget the fact that the term “rescue” implies health & safety of both victims as well as the rescuers. 

In response to a disaster, community people, rescue workers, medical & first-aid providers would be the first to approach the incident site. More often than not, the disaster site lacks reliable information, adequate means of communication, clear line of authority and coordination between various support agencies. Unlike their usual selves, the health care providers and volunteers have to face extremely stressful medical and safety issues while exposing themselves to various hazards and risky situations.

Rescue workers may have safety concerns such as impending structural collapse, landslides, explosion, fire, electrocution or transmitting communicable diseases, etc. It can be a community fire incident, construction site accident, industrial chemical spill or an earthquake. Under the circumstances, disaster response teams need to be aware of potential risks and hazardous environment around them. An on-site injured responder doesn’t only become ineffective and an extra burden to the team but also bring about psychological fear among the rest of the team mates.

The term “Occupational Health & Safety (OHS)” is very popular and significant in manufacturing industries to keep employees safe from accidents or health hazards. In disaster response situation, OHS measures would help us prevent injuries and exposures while mitigating the risk of being hurt. As hazard exposures and risky conditions are inherent to disaster sites, the least we can do is to take adequate safety measures during the response activities.        

Depending on the requirements, disaster responders may have to wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and protective clothing such as, gloves, steel-toed shoes, protective glasses, helmets, respiratory protection, ear plugs, etc. Professionals as well as volunteers must follow safety principles and guidelines while supervisors need to make sure that the safety procedures are being followed to protect both responders and victims from probable illness and injuries during the rescue operation.

Regular safety training and reviews of response procedures are important. Proper training of disaster workers has to be an integral part of the entire disaster response program. The search & Rescue personnel, volunteers, professionals, supervisors and managers need to be trained on various aspects of OHS such as damage awareness, risk assessment, environmental hazards, equipment handling, PPEs, safe lifting, safe handling of victims or dead bodies as well as on-site psychological support.

Although disaster responders have to assume certain level of risk as part of their job, they need to avoid heroism and emotionally driven actions in the midst of a crisis. Safety of the victims as well as the rescuers should be number one priority in the list. Above all, health-related precautions and safety measures must be inextricably attached to the entire disaster response planning, implementation and execution process.  

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