Georgia Tech Research Institute Sending Safety Trainers to Gulf Coast

Tue November 22, 2005 - National Edition
Jeff Cronin

Paul Schlumper’s teams roam amid ravaged Gulf Coast structures that are now merely shadows of a previous life.

They don’t carry hammers and aren’t heading for the cab of a bulldozer.

But the role they play in the reconstruction efforts of what has become one large construction site could mean the difference between life and death.

Schlumper’s crew members have traveled to Mobile, AL, and Biloxi and Gulfport, MS, from the Georgia Tech Research Institute to ensure construction workers are staying safe at their job sites.

The United States Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has awarded the institute a one-year, $400,000 grant to help train workers involved in the reconstruction efforts along the Gulf Coast.

“We’ll be going out there with mobile training units, coordinating our locations with OSHA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency,” said Dan Ortiz, chief of the Occupational Safety and Heath Division at the institute. “Our approach in the disaster areas will have to be different than what we’ve done before. For example, electricity may not be available in some areas, so we’ll do demos and distribute one-page technical guides instead of giving PowerPoint presentations.”

The program caters only to contractors working under public or private contracts who fall under OSHA’s jurisdiction and not to volunteers, Schlumper said.

As the program gets into full swing, the details of how the trainers will get their message to the workers remain fluid.

Schlumper is working with major contractors and construction associations to determine the needs of the workers throughout the region.

The sessions will be varied.

A team of trainers could happen upon an unsafe condition during its travels and lead a 30-minute intervention. Or, it could be at the helm of a week-long session set up through the contracting firm.

Since the hope of steady work has attracted people from all over to the Gulf Coast, Schlumper is sure there are plenty who have never received formal safety training. On the other hand, he expected to find many who have participated in 10- or 30-hour OSHA training session.

Still, he said it’s important to focus on issues common to disaster areas. Many job sites are close to traffic now that roadways have been cleared of debris, so workers must be cautious. Additionally, overhead powerlines could be quite dangerous as electricity service returns to the region.

Fall protection will be another key aspect to the institute’s training sessions.

“Our concern is that in the zeal to remove debris and restore buildings, workers and employers will take shortcuts,” Ortiz said. “We want to have resources out there to make sure workers have the proper protective equipment and knowledge of environmental hazards.”

The teams expect to encounter language and literacy barriers and are prepared with materials that use Spanish or symbols and graphics to explain concepts.

“We suspect that a high percentage of the workers will be people whose only language is Spanish,” Ortiz said. “So we will have the assistance of a Spanish-speaking consultant. We’ll adapt our materials as we need to to meet the needs of these workers.”

Approximately 10 institute employees, including two who conducted training at Ground Zero following the 2001 terrorist attacks, will rotate in and out from the affected areas.

Schlumper said Georgia Tech Research Institute will subcontract another firm to cover Florida.

Institute officials said they hope to reach thousands of workers throughout the length of the program, which will wrap up in September 2006.

To arrange for a training session, call 404/385-1797 or 404/894-7431 or visit CEG