Earthquake Preparedness and Response


In the aftermath of an earthquake, workers may be involved in a variety of response and recovery operations. The following are general guidelines that may be applicable to workers involved in assessing and/or cleaning up the damage to their worksite.

Rescue workers looking through debris
Collapsed Structures

Collapsed structures are a common result of earthquakes. Rescue workers, engineers and emergency responders may have to enter collapsed structures to perform search and rescue activities, and all possible safety and health precautions should be taken to ensure they can perform their duties safely.

What is a collapsed structure?

When internal load-bearing structural elements fail, a building will collapse into itself and exterior walls are pulled into the falling structure. This scenario may be caused by construction activity, an earthquake or fire and may result in a dense debris field with a small footprint. Alternatively, if the structural failure is caused by an explosion or natural forces such as weather, the building may collapse in an outward direction resulting in a less dense and scattered debris field.

Incident Command System

Once the incident command system is established at a collapsed structure, the incident commander maintains accountability for all response personnel at the scene. A safety officer may also be mobilized and report directly to the incident commander. The safety officer is responsible for monitoring and assessing the safety aspects of the responders during the collapsed structure event. The safety officer's responsibilities may include:

  • Overseeing all safety and health aspects of response personnel
  • Assuring that optimal safety and injury prevention is practiced
  • Investigating and documenting all response team injuries and illnesses
  • Preparing and maintaining entry permits
  • Ensuring that appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) is used
  • Developing and implementing daily health and safety plans which address (1) sanitation, (2) hygiene, (3) PPE, (4) Decontamination, (5) work/rest cycles, (6) acute medical care, etc.
  • Interviewing off-going shifts to assess developing hazards
  • Assessing risk for the identified hazards; and
  • Training in hazard awareness and use of PPE.
  • Assessing structural instabilities

Who enters a collapsed structure?

Rescue workers looking through debris

Following a catastrophic failure of a structure, rescue workers and emergency responders may be required to enter the collapsed structure. Emergency responders include firefighters, police officers, emergency medical technicians, construction workers and government representatives. Emergency responders may be responsible for assisting survivors, extinguishing fires, shutting off utilities, assessing structural instabilities, shoring-up safe paths into the structure and assessment of other hazards such as airborne contaminants. Rescue workers such as Urban Search and Rescue Teams focus on finding survivors and later removing fatalities from collapsed structures.

Potential Hazards

Response and recovery work in earthquake-impacted areas presents safety and health hazards that should be properly identified, evaluated, and controlled in a systematic manner to reduce or eliminate occupational safety and health risks to response and recovery workers. The following hazards should be considered in order to protect rescue workers and emergency responders when preparing to enter a collapsed structure:

  • Water system breaks that may flood basement areas
  • Exposure to pathogens from sanitary sewer system breaks
  • Exposed and energized electrical wiring
  • Exposure to airborne smoke and dust (asbestos, silica, etc.)
  • Exposure to bloodborne pathogens
  • Exposure to hazardous materials (ammonia, battery acid, leaking fuel, etc.)
  • Natural gas leaks creating flammable and toxic environments
  • Structural instability
  • Insufficient oxygen
  • Confined spaces
  • Slip, trip or fall hazards from holes, protruding rebar, etc.
  • Struck-by hazards from falling objects
  • Fire
  • Struck by heavy equipment such as cranes or excavators
  • Sharp objects such as glass and debris
  • Secondary collapse from aftershock, vibration and explosions
  • Unfamiliar surroundings
  • Adverse weather conditions
  • Noise from equipment (generators/heavy machines)
  • Workplace violence from robbing and looting
Rescue workers and emergency responders
General Precautions

See the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) pages on Earthquake Cleanup and Response Resources, Disaster Site Management and Emergency Responders for additional precautions to take after an earthquake. See also the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Worker Education and Training Program page on Earthquakes.