DERT Stories of Success
Janelle Rios, Ph.D.
NIEHS grantee Janelle Rios, Ph.D., is a passionate advocate for the health and safety of workers and communities, especially those affected by disasters. Rios is the co-principal investigator for the Texas-Utah Consortium for Hazardous Waste Worker Education and Training (Texas-Utah Consortium). Most recently, working alongside co-principal investigator Robert Emery, Dr.P.H. and other colleagues, Rios led efforts to protect workers, residents, and volunteers from hazardous exposures during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas.
Over a span of four days in late August 2017, Hurricane Harvey, a category 4 storm, left Houston residents to contend with record-breaking flooding and significant damages to homes, businesses, and schools. An estimated 200,000 homes were destroyed by the storm. Streets were filled with debris and floodwaters, resulting in a widespread release of environmental chemicals, such as arsenic and lead, bacteria, and other hazards.
Rios, a longtime Houston resident, was affected by the disaster both personally and professionally. Her home was severely impacted by the flooding and required extensive reconstruction. Even while dealing with these personal setbacks, she managed to play a critical role in activating emergency response operations through the Texas-Utah Consortium to assist workers and community members.
Anticipating Public Health Needs
The Texas-Utah Consortium, funded by the NIEHS Worker Training Program (WTP), provides hands-on health and safety training to prepare workers and communities to protect themselves and their environment from exposures to harmful hazardous materials. To meet these demands, the Consortium works with local organizations and university partners in conjunction with the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) Safety, Health, Environment, and Risk Management Department, which provides expert guidance in areas related to health and safety.
After Hurricane Harvey struck in 2017, the Texas-Utah Consortium provided knowledge, skills, and tools to those lacking essential resources and training. Rios and colleagues rapidly delivered just-in-time courses on flood cleanup, mold abatement, and respirator use to help protect cleanup workers from mold-related toxins, environmental chemicals, and other hazardous materials. By leveraging a partnership with a local worker center, Fe y Justicia, Rios helped deliver training to day laborers, faith-based organizations, volunteer groups, and residents. Materials from the National Clearinghouse for Worker Safety and Health Training were also distributed, including two booklets offered in both English and Spanish on “Mold Cleanup and Treatment” and “Protecting Yourself While Helping Others.”
To address local needs for personal protective equipment (PPE), the Texas-Utah Consortium provided residents and workers with 1,000 N95 respirators, which are designed to fit the face very closely to filter fine particles. Just a few weeks after the hurricane, 800 people had received the respirators, along with training on how to use them. Since then, trainers have distributed thousands of pieces of PPE to residents and workers in Houston.
The Texas-Utah Consortium’s efforts were critical to meet immediate, on-the-ground needs for workers and the community. But Rios says the experience also opened her eyes to two vital needs to improve future disaster recovery efforts: 1) increasing access to training resources, especially for low-income, Spanish-speaking communities and 2) improving coordination to match skills and supplies with community needs.
Leading Ongoing Hurricane Recovery Efforts
Rios continues to lead trainings and provide tools to enhance recovery efforts and address needs. In November 2017, she partnered with the Wind of the Spirit Immigrant Resource Center to deliver an Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) 10-hour course for a group of Spanish-speaking women who work with local employers to muck and gut homes and buildings. Muck and gut, a process to remove wet and contaminated materials, presents risks to worker health and safety. Even though they face daily hazards on the job, course participants initially lacked essential training to prevent injuries and illnesses during cleanup, making this course especially valuable. Participants also received protective gloves, N95 respirators, face shields, and hard hats.
“Even though these women may never use the hard hats and other supplies, they left the course feeling valued because we took the time and effort to provide the health and safety training for them to protect themselves as well as their families,” said Rios. “Our hope is that they share this newfound knowledge with their communities.”
To further meet training needs, Rios and her team are creating Spanish translations for Prevention, Preparedness, and Response Academy; online learning modules – topics range from “Basic Emergency Preparedness” to “Post-Flood Infectious Diseases and Hazards.”
To improve future disaster preparedness and response coordination, Rios and her team are hoping to create an online, open access resource to match available supplies, equipment, and training with communities who need it. Rios proposed this need at the Fall 2017 WTP Awardee Meeting in a presentation entitled “ An Idea for Harmonization (201KB).”
“Our goal is to create healthier communities through prevention, preparedness, and response training,” said Rios. “The communities we work with consist of people in a wide range of occupations – from health and safety professionals to janitorial staff – and we want to ensure they all have access to resources to ensure their lifelong safety and health.”