Occ-health nurses have a role in terror planning

Proper preparation reduces stress

Thousands of Americans died in the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC; anthrax threatened postal workers and elected officials the following year; and recently, London's mass transit system was rocked by explosions. Terrorism is a safety consideration at workplaces in the United States now, but how do you prepare your work force for what one expert calls "a nameless, faceless enemy"?

Occupational health nurses, in the current climate of terrorist activity in the West, must consider how to prepare and, when possible, protect their work forces from terrorist threats.

"Every nurse has to be prepared in case of disaster," says Joanne Langan, PhD, an assistant professor of nursing at Saint Louis (MO) University Doisy College of Health Science. "Nurses will be sought out for information no matter where they are. Nurses will play key roles in disaster relief whether they work full time, part time, or at home in their communities."

Langan's colleague, Dotti James, PhD, an associate professor of nursing at Doisy College, says the terror attacks in London show "how unexpected it is and how important it is for nurses to prepare."

James and Langan wrote "Preparing Nurses for Disaster Management" after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, after they realized there was no single place for nurses to go for comprehensive information about what to do during a terror incident or disaster.

They also started a first-of-its-kind certificate program at Saint Louis University, preparing nurses across the country to handle the aftermath of a terror attack. They had traveled to Israel to see how nurses there deal with similar disasters, and used that experience in their book and curriculum.

"What happened in London is an example of a well coordinated, nonbiological attack, and nurses around the world must be prepared for their new role — take the lead in caring for victims when disaster strikes," says James.

Occ-health nurses stepping up

While emergency and trauma nurses were immediately at the focus of disaster preparation awareness following the Sept. 11 attacks, occupational health nurses have since been identified as important participants in preparation.

Pamela Aaltonen, MS, RN, assistant professor of nursing at Purdue University and a director of the Indiana Public Health Association, says the state public health association has been working on plans for educating the public on hazards relating to terrorism and has identified occupational health nurses as key players in protecting the public at work.

The effects of war and terrorist activity can vary widely. Workers in industries that already have been hit with terrorist attacks may experience constant worry for their safety. Those employed in companies with international ties may feel their businesses are vulnerable. Chemical manufacturers, large power plants, and work sites with thousands of employees concentrated in one location may feel they are likely targets.

Steps taken to protect employees and workplaces can even create fear, one expert says, if the implementation creates an impression that there is heightened danger behind the protective measures.

"Preparing and educating employees makes them prepared, and done properly, you avoid paranoia," explains Paul Viollis, PhD, a risk control strategist in Melbourne, FL.

"But if you don't educate people properly, you send them into a frenzy. If you don't tell them what they need to be concerned with, exactly, you will create more paranoia," he adds.

One responsibility of occupational health nurses in a time of heightened precautions, however, is to make sure that everyday worker health and safety doesn't get lost in the scramble to protect against terrorist threats, says Barry S. Levy, MD, MPH, of Sherborn, MA-based Barry S. Levy Associates.

"Preventive measures in response to terrorist attacks or threats need to be designed and administered in a fair and scientifically based manner," Levy says. "Inordinate attention to future terrorist threats may lead to the shifting of human and financial resources away from addressing important occupational health and safety problems."

Neil Boris, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at Tulane University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, concurs. "Educating employees about heightened threats while keeping them focused on their work and routine workplace safety is an effective way of reducing the stress that fear and increased security can bring."

For more information, contact:

  • Pamela Aaltonen, MS, RN, Assistant Professor of Nursing, Purdue University School of Nursing, West Lafayette, IN. E-mail: aaltonen@purdue.edu.
  • Neil Boris, MD, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Tulane University Health Sciences Center, New Orleans. Phone: (504) 988-6017.
  • Barry S. Levy, MD, MPH, President, Barry S. Levy Associates, Sherborn, MA. Phone: (508) 650-1039. E-mail: blevy@igc.org.
  • Paul Viollis, PhD, President, Risk Control Strategies. Web site: www.riskcontrolstrategies.com. Phone: (866) 433-3335.