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Prior Training Key to Successful PPE Use after 9/11

“More than a decade after the 9/11 attacks, we’re still learning from the actions we took during clean-up and recovery,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “Though it comes as no surprise to us, a new study of responders shows that prior worker training had a direct impact on the successful use of PPE during the crisis.”

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LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan

Thousands of workers, including a large number of Laborers, assisted with clean-up and recovery efforts in the months following the attacks. Many eventually came to suffer from respiratory ailments. Because a registry of 9/11 workers was established soon after the crisis, researchers are able to correlate health outcomes with responders’ prior training and on-site use of respirators.

In this ground-breaking work, researchers conducted an investigation of the use of masks, respirators, worker training and fit-testing during clean-up after the World Trade Center (WTC) disaster and assessed implications for the respiratory health of emergency responders. In the collaborative study, Respiratory Protective Equipment, Mask Use, and Respiratory Outcomes among World Trade Center Rescue and Recovery Workers (AJIM, 54 (2011) pp. 897-905), the researchers make two important findings:

  • A statistically significant association exists between prior worker training in respirator protection and subsequent effective usage during a disaster response.
  • A strong link exists between respirator usage and self-reported health outcomes.

The authors investigated the use of respirators by WTC rescue and recovery workers who worked at least one shift on the debris pile after the first weeks of emergency response.

“Although many workers, including Laborers, became ill depite their use of respirators,” O’Sullivan summarizes, “the investigation shows a clear association between the use of respirators and better respiratory health outcomes among workers who were subjected to the intense, prolonged pulmonary assaults of this clean-up effort.”

According to the authors, this is the first study to make an association between differing types of respirator usage and specific health outcomes for WTC rescue and recovery workers. The study was able to show the odds of developing respiratory symptoms and disease based on respirator protection level. In general, Building Trades’ workers had a higher prevalence of respirator use than other workers at the site.

The impressive study was awarded the American Public Health Association’s OHS Section’s Science Research Award.

[Walter Jones is the LHSFNA’s Associate Director of Occupational Safety and Health.]

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