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Disaster Science Research Initiative to Enhance Responder Safety and Health

NIOSH staff members evaluating healthcare worker protection used in the Ebola response under simulated West Africa weather conditions.

NIOSH staff members evaluating healthcare worker protection used in the Ebola response under simulated West Africa weather conditions.

NIOSH established the Disaster Science Research Initiative (DSRI) to develop an approach that will allow for timely and scalable responder-based research that can be feasibly implemented before, during, and after a disaster.

The goal of the DSRI is to develop a framework that allows for disaster-related research to be started quickly, regardless of the disaster scenario, without interfering with the response itself. The types of research conducted through this Initiative may include the impact of a novel exposure, unexpected or severe health effects, the effectiveness of a proposed intervention, mental health/resilience issues, and disease outcomes with latency periods. By defining “research” in its broadest sense the Initiative includes in its scope etiologic, intervention, applied, comparative effectiveness research, worker-based participatory research, meta-analyses, and survey research. Scientific study can provide better understanding and reduction of responder health effects from disasters and can lead to improvements in the effectiveness of emergency responses.


As the federal agency charged by Congress to conduct worker safety and health research, NIOSH has been a leader in the field of disaster science research especially with regard to finding new ways to ensure responder safety and health. In partnership with other Federal and state agencies, as well as private sector entities, NIOSH has made responder safety and health research an important part of its portfolio.

Conducting research on responder safety and health issues during disasters and as part of emergency responses presents unique challenges such as:

  • Quickly deciding whether or not a research study is needed;
  • Ensuring that the study design does not interfere with the actual response activities; and
  • Ensuring that the research provides a benefit for the responders in current or future events.

Potential research questions under consideration for NIOSH’s DSRI include:

  1. What are the primary questions needing research considering the possible types of responses and the responders involved?
  2. Where are the major gaps in our understanding of exposures and other factors influencing responder health?
  3. What are the major challenges associated with conducting disaster science research to enhance responder safety and health?
  4. What research is NIOSH uniquely positioned to do in regards to responder safety and health research?
  5. What role should bio-monitoring play in responder disaster research and how is it best implemented?
  6. How does disaster research best fit into existing national response policies and systems?

Stakeholder Workshop

Recognizing the importance of broad input to the DSRI process, NIOSH convened a one-day workshop of invited stakeholders on July 10th, 2014 in Atlanta, GA. The objectives were to: 1) obtain individual input from non-federal experts on what disaster science research is most needed and feasible to address responder safety and health risks and exposures; and 2) discuss the most appropriate role(s) for NIOSH and the extramural community to maximize resource utilization and expertise in the field of disaster science research. Subject matter experts from academia, labor, health departments, and non-governmental organizations joined NIOSH staff to consider the current disaster science research literature and help ensure the Initiative achieves its objective to support meaningful, practical research to protect the health and safety of emergency response providers and recovery workers.

The workshop brought together a variety of perspectives and viewpoints based on the wealth of diverse professional experiences of participants. While the need to develop a disaster research agenda for responders was discussed, participants thought it more important to first address operational needs to include engaging responder organizations and completing a systems/logistical analysis of how best to incorporate research into disaster response. All participants felt there was a need to move DSRI forward and that NIOSH was well-positioned to lead the effort to enhance responder safety and health.

RAND has produced a corresponding report on the proceedings of the July 2014 workshop, outlining the rich and varied input on current issues and needs within disaster science research and potential steps forward. NIOSH thanks all the workshop participants for their valuable contributions to DSRI.

NIOSH DSRI Steering Committee

In March 2015, NIOSH created an internal DSRI Steering Committee (SC) charged with the development of a strategic implementation plan to highlight priority areas that need to be addressed over the next two years. The goal of this planning effort will ensure that rapid deployment, incorporation of research into the response, and funding mechanisms are in place to be able to conduct disaster research in a timely manner. The strategic plan will also aim to identify data collection tools and methods that will be needed to address various research topics.

In addition to this planning role, the DSRI SC will also serve to identify and address responder research needs during future disasters. The DSRI SC will identify additional NIOSH subject matter expertise needed to address the particular disaster research questions involved in the response. This group would prepare a list of research needs that should be addressed immediately as well as a list of less urgent and long term research needs that can be addressed after the responder deployment phase has ended.

Contact Information

For more information on DSRI, contact Angela Weber at Additional contacts include CDR Lisa Delaney at and CAPT Margaret Kitt at

Related Links

Emergency Preparedness and Response Program Portfolio

Emergency Response Resources

Emergency Responder Health Monitoring and Surveillance (ERHMS)

Guidance Documents for Protecting Emergency Responders

NIOSHTIC-2 Search Results for Emergency Response

Related Publications

NIOSH Disaster Science Research Initiative: Summary of the July 2014 DSRI Workshop

DSRI Background Paper

A Decision Process for Determining Whether to Conduct Responder Health Research Following Large Disasters

Call to Action: Include Scientific Investigations as an Integral Component of Disaster Planning and Response. A Report from the National Biodefense Science Board

Recommendations for Biomonitoring of Emergency Responders: Focus on Occupational Health Investigations and Occupational Health Research

Research as a Part of Public Health Emergency Response

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  • Page last reviewed: July 1, 2015
  • Page last updated: July 1, 2015 The U.S. Government's Official Web PortalDepartment of Health and Human Services
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