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Safety Groups Team Up to Protect Workers During Ongoing Disaster Cleanup in Puerto Rico

“Train the Trainers” Event Includes Team from Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Texas and Washington DC

Four months after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, millions of island residents still face daily threats to their safety and health. More than 2 million people live in areas at risk of water contamination, large parts of the island are still without electricity and 60,000 homes are without roofs.

With reconstruction efforts still underway, the International Chemical Workers Union Council (ICWUC) and the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) have brought together a team of senior trainers and worker educators this week at the Universidad de Puerto Rico to boost local skills and help protect workers on the island from preventable illnesses, injuries and possible fatalities.

The weeklong “Disaster Train-the-Trainers” event, presented in Spanish and continuing through Sunday, January 28, will help develop trainers to protect day laborers, construction workers and others at risk of exposure to mold, toxic chemicals, damaged buildings and other hazards.

“Millions of people in Puerto Rico are still suffering from the damage caused by Hurricane Maria,” said Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of National COSH, who helped coordinate the training. “That’s why it’s so important that experienced trainers from the COSH Network are on the ground to provide help where it’s needed the most.”

“This program is possible now because we’ve already conducted Spanish-language “Disaster Train the Trainer” events with National COSH and other partners,” said Luis Vazquez, education coordinator at ICWUC, who coordinated this program and is in San Juan this week to train students and workers. “The work we’re doing in disaster areas makes a real difference, giving workers the tools they need to stay safe. This event is personal for me - I have many family and friends in Puerto Rico. There are all kinds of dangers lurking in homes and buildings after a hurricane.”

Trainers from Fe Y Justicia Worker Center in Houston, the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH), the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA) and the Cincinnati-based ICWUC are conducting in-depth sessions this week with graduate students in public health from the Universidad de Puerto Rico, as well as AFSCME members from the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

Topics include how to recognize disaster-related workplace hazards, safe clean up procedures and workers’ rights to a safe workplace. New trainers are practicing these modules and presenting them to their fellow new trainers.

In turn, these graduate students and workers will soon be out in the field to share this information at temporary shelters, recovery worksites and other locations where workers are affected by hazards associated with disaster recovery.

“We know that in previous cleanup efforts, workers exposed to flood waters have suffered skin infections, lesions, asthma attacks, allergic reactions and other conditions,” said Lida Orta-Anés, professor of environmental health at the Universidad de Puerto Rico (UPR).

“This an opportunity for future public health professionals to confront real world problems - and to help solve them,” said Sergio Caporali-Filho, also a professor of public health at UPR, who coordinated the training team there.

This week’s “Train-the-Trainers” session builds on a similar program presented by National COSH, ICWUC and local partners in Houston last September, after Hurricane Harvey devastated that city.

“It’s just plain wrong that people are living without power or clean water four months after Hurricane Maria,” said Milagros Barreto, worker center organizer at MassCOSH. A native of Puerto Rico, she is part of the training team on the island this week. “There’s so much work still to do here – and we have to make sure it is done safely.”

“Our mission is to educate as many as possible to be better prepared to recognize and remove hazards,” said Roberto Garza, a LCLAA trainer from Michigan who is also in Puerto Rico this week. ”We’re helping workers to be prepared to reduce these risks during future severe weather events.”

This week’s training is made possible, in part, by support from the U.S. National Institute of Environmental and Health Sciences (NIEHS).

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National COSH links the efforts of local worker health and safety coalitions in communities across the United States, advocating for elimination of preventable hazards in the workplace. For more information, please visit coshnetwork.org.

The International Chemical Workers Union Council (ICWUC), based in Akron, Ohio, represents workers in the chemical industry and other occupations in the U.S. The ICWUC has five worker health and safety federal grants and collaborates with 10 other union partners, including National COSH, to conduct a range of worker safety and health programs and develop rank and file worker trainers.

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