OSHA On-Site Consultation Provides Critical Safety and Health Support During the 2020 Puerto Rico Earthquake Swarm
In late December 2019 through early 2020, the southwestern part of Puerto Rico was struck by an earthquake swarm, 11 of which were magnitude five or greater. The largest and most damaging earthquake occurred on January 7, 2020, and was responsible for an island-wide power outage that lasted weeks in several parts of the island. At least one person was killed and several others were injured. In the southwestern part of the island, thousands of people left without homes camped outdoors in improvised community shelters. After a state of emergency was declared, all safety and health specialists, including those from the Puerto Rico Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) On-Site Consultation program, were activated for emergency response.
The Puerto Rico On-Site Consultation program was assigned to assist the town of Guánica, the epicenter of the earthquake swarm. To ensure the safety of consultants as aftershocks kept coming, they were divided in teams of two, a safety specialist and an industrial hygienist. Once in Guánica, they performed safety and health interventions in the shelters and identified hazards and recommended corrective actions, to assure the safety of refugees, volunteers, and employees.
In the shelters, electrical hazards related to the use of portable generators were the most common hazards identified by consultants. Other hazards identified include vermin infestation and inappropriate fire prevention measures such as the incorrect storage and use of flammable liquids. On several occasions, consultants experienced powerful aftershocks on site and provided assistance in emergency evacuation procedures.
The teams of consultants had to find and travel through alternative or secondary roads due to the extensive road and bridge damage caused by the earthquake swarm and related landslides. One of the largest landslides was on a main road in the southern part of the island from the town of Ponce to the town of Peñuelas. Massive rocks that fell from the mountain blocked the road. Crews worked for several days to clear the roadway. Safety consultants from Puerto Rico’s On-Site Consultation program provided employees (many of whom had lost their homes) with high visibility vests, safety training, and emotional support.
The Puerto Rico On-Site Consultation program performed about 20 formal interventions. While there has been one reported fatality from the earthquakes, no work-related fatalities have been reported. The Consultation program remains active and available for assistance during the rebuilding phase.
Destroyed bridge leading to the town of Guánica.
Landslide on road from Ponce to Peñuelas.