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COVID presents new set of challenges for DOD environmental health

Image of Group of Marines, snowshoeing through the snow. U.S. Marines with Combat Logistics Battalion 11, 1st Marine Logistics Group, conduct a "snowshoe tour" during Mountain Exercise 2-18 at Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, California. (Photo by Marine Corps Sgt. James Trevino, 1st Marine Logistics Group.)

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Total Force Fitness is a fundamental element of the Department of Defense’s National Defense Strategy.

Helping to “Build a More Lethal Force,” Total Force Fitness focuses on a service member’s overall health over the duration of their career, including physical, environmental, spiritual, psychological, social, and financial components.

One of the most important factors to take into account when maintaining one’s overall fitness is physical environment, and the ability to perform tasks in a multitude of operational environments. That includes being provided with the correct equipment or reducing excessive exposure to natural elements, such as heat or cold, or chemical, biological, or radiological factors.

Environmental health within the DOD includes monitoring factors including temperature, air, water, and soil, as well as identifying issues that may impact military and civilian employees both on base and within local communities.

“Right now, we’re obviously concerned about cold weather impacts to our workers, and we want to make sure they’re using the right PPE (personal protective equipment) to be able to perform the mission. They have to be issued gloves and parkas and the types of equipment to be able to continue that mission,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Elisa Hammer, Environmental Health Program manager for the Office of the Air Force Surgeon General. “Likewise, if it’s hot weather, we want to make sure folks are implementing work-rest cycles, hydrating, and staying in the shade or maybe even recommend ice packs if that’s not possible.”

Hammer explained how the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a new set of unique operational challenges. She cited the examples of airmen on the flight line or sailors on the flight deck, where social distancing may not always be possible, but “masking up” may be an issue as well.

“In order for them to do their job in a COVID environment, they have to mask up,” Hammer said. “The problem with masking up is that, if it’s a disposable mask or a mask that could fly off, that’s a big problem. That’s FOD (foreign object debris).”

Ideally, service members should always try to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance – wear a mask, maintain social distance, wash your hands frequently, and avoid crowds whenever possible, she stated.

For Hammer’s office, Total Force Fitness applies to work and play, within and outside of an environment in which COVID is a concern.

“We want to make sure that people are living, working, and playing in clean air,” Hammer said.

This includes minimizing risk factors associated with wildfires, sandstorms, and other local threats, and providing recommendations to base or deployed commanders on how to mitigate those risks.

“It could be something like contamination from a past fuel spill that’s still in the soil. We want to make sure that people who are running or jogging aren’t doing it on that part of an installation,” she said.

“What we really specialize in is trying to identify those threats and making sure there is no receptor, meaning no human being, on the other end of that threat that could be exposed to that contamination.”

Clean drinking water is also one of her primary concerns.

“Of course we want to provide clean water for drinking,” Hammer said. “We follow state, federal, DOD, and Air Force guidelines to make sure we’re complying with health standards.”

This is especially important in deployed locations, where bottled water or potable water tanks must be provided to avoid using local, untested sources.

Hammer said that she foresees some positive outcomes garnered from lessons learned from the pandemic.

“The CDC recommendations are temporary, but I think it changes us permanently. It’s really caused us to take a look at how to provide clean indoor air,” she said. “I think a lot of people are thinking about the future and how we can prevent another COVID or something similar. What can be do about our facilities? How do we maintain or upgrade ventilation systems and what can we do differently? How much outdoor air needs to be introduced into the indoor environment? How can we improve circulation? There’s been a lot of good studies on modification of HVAC systems and industry standards are being modified and updated.”

Hammer said that if she could make only one recommendation regarding environmental health, it would be to get outside as much as possible.

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