An assessment of post-disaster psychological stress in hazardous waste operations and emergency response (HAZWOPER) workers

Joshua C Calcote, The University of Texas School of Public Health


Personnel involved in natural or man-made disaster response and recovery efforts may be exposed to a wide variety of physical and mental stressors that can exhibit long-lasting and detrimental psychopathological outcomes. In a disaster situation, huge numbers of "secondary" responders can be involved in contaminant clean-up and debris removal and can be at risk of developing stress-related mental health outcomes. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) worker training hierarchy typically required for response workers, known as "Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response" (HAZWOPER), does not address the mental health and safety concerns of workers. This study focused on the prevalence of traumatic stress experienced by secondary responders that had received or expressed interest in receiving HAZWOPER training through the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Worker Education and Training Program (NIEHS WETP). The study involved the modification of two preexisting and validated survey tools to assess secondary responder awareness of physical, mental, and traumatic stressors on mental health and sought to determine if a need existed to include traumatic stress-related mental health education in the current HAZWOPER training regimen. The study evaluated post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), resiliency, mental distress, and negative effects within a secondary responder population of 176 respondents. Elevated PTSD levels were seen in the study population as compared to a general responder population (32.9% positive vs. 8%-22.5% positive). Results indicated that HAZWOPER-trained disaster responders were likely to test positive for PTSD, whereas, untrained responders with no disaster experience and responders who possessed either training or disaster experience only were likely to test PTSD negative. A majority (68.75%) of the population tested below the mean resiliency to cope score (80.4) of the average worker population. Results indicated that those who were trained only or who possessed both training and disaster work experience were more likely to have lower resiliency scores than those with no training or experience. There were direct correlations between being PTSD positive and having worked at a disaster site and experiencing mental distress and negative effects. However, HAZWOPER training status does not significantly correlate with mental distress or negative effect. The survey indicated clear support (91% of respondents) for mental health education. The development of a pre- and post-deployment training module is recommended. Such training could provide responders with the necessary knowledge and skills to recognize the symptomology of PTSD, mental stressors, and physical and traumatic stressors, thus empowering them to employ protective strategies or seek professional help if needed. It is further recommended that pre-deployment mental health education be included in the current HAZWOPER 24- and 40-hour course curriculums, as well as, consideration be given towards integrating a stand-alone post-deployment mental health education training course into the current HAZWOPER hierarchy.

Subject Area

Occupational health|Environmental Health|Psychology

Recommended Citation

Calcote, Joshua C, "An assessment of post-disaster psychological stress in hazardous waste operations and emergency response (HAZWOPER) workers" (2012). Texas Medical Center Dissertations (via ProQuest). AAI3518962.