OH staff prove invaluable in UK’s tsunami aid effort

Six months after the Asian tsunami disaster, occupational health (OH) professionals have proved themselves invaluable to the UK aid effort.

Dr Eileen Cahill-Canning, chief medical officer at the Metropolitan Police, was in charge of the OH role in Operation Bracknell – the UK policing response to the Asian tsunami.

In an exclusive interview with Personnel Today to mark the six-month anniversary of the disaster, Cahill-Canning said OH nurses and physicians had made a huge difference to the operation – from the pre-selection of those most suitable for the task to providing emotional and physical support in the disaster area.

Two weeks after the tsunami struck on Boxing Day, 80 police officers and staff from across the UK were working in South East Asia, primarily working in disaster victim identification (DVI).

Cahill-Canning said working in a tragic environment was physically and mentally demanding.

“In the beginning, I wasn’t sure of the value OH could add, but by the end, I was amazed at the benefits we could offer,” she said. The OH staff briefed the volunteers on health hazards and other health issues, and even produced a booklet for officers to warn them of possible dangers.

They were also on site to deal with the physical dangers officers faced.

“There were many cases of heat stroke, skin infections, and problems with hydration,” she said.

Cahill-Canning said illness could have quickly worsened but for the fact OH was there to deal with problems immediately.

The extent of the disaster also took its toll emotionally. “We provided a constant source of reassurance and a confidential place to discuss how people felt. The DVI teams’ feedback is a testament that they really valued us,” she said.

“We fulfilled our duty of care and that could not have been done if I had been sitting in an office in London.”

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