NIOSH Disaster Science Research Initiative to Enhance Responder Safety and Health
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NIOSH Disaster Science Research Initiative to Enhance Responder Safety and Health

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      The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is the only Federal agency charged by Congress in the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 to conduct worker safety and health research. NIOSH has been a leader in the field of disaster science research especially with regard to finding new ways to ensure responder safety and health before, during, and after a disaster. In partnership with other Federal and state agencies, as well as private sector entities, NIOSH has made responder safety and health research an important part of its research portfolio. Nearly a decade ago, NIOSH established the NIOSH Emergency Preparedness and Response (EPR) Program to advance scientific research in the area of responder safety and health.

      In 2002, NIOSH organized its disaster science activities in an Emergency Preparedness and Response Office (EPRO). Today, the EPRO coordinates NIOSH’s preparedness and response activities during man-made and natural disasters as well as coordinates NIOSH’s disaster science research activities. Based on NIOSH’s experience in responding to disasters, the Institute led an interagency work group following Hurricane Katrina to develop the Emergency Responder Health Monitoring and Surveillance (ERHMS) Guidance, which was adopted by the National Response Team ( in 2012. ERHMS provides guidance and tools to assist public and private sector entities in protecting responders prior, during, and after an emergency response incident.

      NIOSH’s experiences in responding to emergencies including the World Trade Center disaster, Hurricane Katrina, and the Deepwater Horizon disaster have also stimulated scientific inquiry among occupational safety and health researchers with regard to the long-term health outcomes from disaster response and the use of biomonitoring in emergency responders. Scientific study can provide better understanding and mitigation of responder health effects from disasters and can lead to improvements in the effectiveness of emergency responses.

      Disaster science as it relates to responder safety and health can present unique challenges to occupational safety and health researchers. First, a decision process needs to be in place in advance of a disaster to determine if a responder research study is warranted. Many factors need to be weighed, but it is imperative that a scientific study not interfere with actual response activities. Second, responder safety and health research studies are difficult to design and difficult to implement. Strategic thinking about what study designs and implementation plans are most feasible for responder safety and health studies is important. Third, research can be costly and scientists must assess whether studies are a worthwhile public health investment that will enhance future response efforts. The goal of disaster science research would be to produce useful, reliable results. As emergencies are by definition unpredictable, an accelerated decision-making process is necessary to determine if research should be undertaken.

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