Disaster Science Responder Research Program

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 Responder Research (DSRR) Program to develop an approach that allows for timely and scalable responder-based research that can be implemented before, during, and after a public health emergency.

The goal of the DSRR Program is to implement a framework that allows for occupational safety and health research to be started quickly when a disaster or public health emergency occurs, without interfering with the response itself.

The types of research conducted may include:

  • the impact of a novel exposure
  • unexpected or severe health effects
  • the effectiveness of a proposed intervention
  • mental health/resilience issues
  • disease outcomes with latency periods

The DSRR Program looks at all workers impacted by the disaster or public health emergency not only traditional response and recovery workers.

Strategic Goals

The DSRR strategic goals include:

  1. Identify priority topic areas to enhance safety and health among all workers impacted by public health emergencies;
  2. Address major logistical, technical and administrative challenges associated with conducting research during a public health emergency;
  3. Identify existing data collection capabilities and information resources that can be utilized or modified for occupational research purposes; and
  4. Ensure study findings are rapidly disseminated to inform the ongoing response.

Priority Topic Areas and Current Activities for the COVID-19 Response

While some disaster science research projects are best conducted during an ongoing response, the program also aims to identify priority topic areas to address research gaps that can be studied outside the scope of an ongoing response.

The priority topic areas include:

  • Clinical/Transmission
    Multidisciplinary research to clarify the details of SARS-CoV-2 transmission in work settings and to translate advances in diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19 into improved workplace primary and secondary prevention strategies is critical to returning employees back to work in the safest way possible. This work will require collaborative efforts of many disciplines in many settings, including field studies, demonstration projects, laboratory research, and others.
  • Economics
    Economic research on worker safety, health, and well-being during the COVID-19 crisis is critical because it assesses the effects of economic factors (e.g. unemployment) and the most cost-effective  prevention strategies (e.g. physical distancing, personal protective equipment) to improve worker well-being and reduce economic burden for workers, their families and employers, and society overall.
  • Engineering Controls
    Engineering controls protect workers from COVID-19 by eliminating or reducing possible exposures. Examples include improved ventilation to dilute viral particles and modification of workstations, including use of physical barriers, to maintain worker separation.  Well-designed engineering controls can be highly effective in protecting workers without impacting productivity or personal comfort.
  • Environmental Exposure Assessment
    Exposures assessment to SARS-CoV-2 is critical to understand the risk of infection in workplace settings and during aerosol-generating activities. In order to measure infectivity of the virus in both aerosols and on surfaces at concentrations near an infectious dose, validated methods need to be developed to ensure results can be consistently interpreted and applied to protect workers.
  • Environmental Methods/Laboratory
    Laboratory experiments on COVID-19 allow us to test basic concepts of how SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted (aerosols vs larger droplets), assess the stability of the virus on surfaces and in aerosols, assess whether source control measures can be effective, and determine whether procedures for environmental aerosol sampling and quantifying the total infectious viral load are informative.
  • Epidemiology and Surveillance
    Epidemiologic studies are of critical importance to identify and characterize the impact of COVID-19 on frontline workers. There is a need for epidemiologic assessment that includes work-related and individual risk factors for infection, and widespread, comprehensive surveillance of infection among U.S. workers.
  • Mental Health
    Public health emergencies may lead to mental health outcomes such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression among all workers impacted by the response. In response to the current COVID-19) pandemic, there is a need to rapidly identify which workers are affected by trauma and are at highest risk of developing subsequent anxiety-related disorders, PTSD and depression.
  • Occupational Violence
    Workplace violence (WPV) includes verbal and physical abuse, homicides, and suicides. COVID-19-related WPV assessments must recognize changing risk factors related to enforcement of disease prevention efforts and unprecedented unemployment and financial loss. Methods should be developed to track violence patterns, assess contributing factors, and identify prevention strategies during the pandemic.
  • Personal Protective Equipment
    Personal protective equipment (PPE) is the last line of defense in the hierarchy of controls but is heavily relied upon in the current COVID-19 pandemic. Novel respiratory protective devices and respirators not traditionally used in healthcare environments are being used as part of crisis capacity strategies.  Research is needed to understand the performance and limitations of these respiratory protective devices.
  • Veterinary/One Health
    Research studies are needed to further investigate the animal species that are most susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection and whether they may be a potential workplace risk to veterinary and other animal workers. Surveillance of animals in close contact with infected humans will provide important public health information about virus transmission from humans to animals and whether transmission from animals to humans may be a concern from some animal species in certain work environments.

Contact Information

Angela Weber (amw1@cdc.gov)

Elizabeth Whelan (eaw0@cdc.gov)

Related NIOSH Resources

Additional Resources

Page last reviewed: May 13, 2020