Michael (Mickey) Ridosh, CIH, an independent consultant, is founder and principal of E-MAR Resources, a small business that provides a range of industrial hygiene services, from occupational exposure monitoring to residential mold inspections. Ridosh, who has more than 40 years of experience in the field, started his career as a chemist in the nuclear industry and was later assigned to EPA Region 9, where he did emergency response work related to hazardous materials in the early 1980s. His consulting work has taken him all over the U.S., and his clients have included engineering companies, construction companies, and government agencies. He’s even worked with a special effects manager to keep actors and actresses safe on the sets of several major film productions, including Paramount Pictures’ 2005 film “War of the Worlds,” which stars Tom Cruise, and more recent films from Marvel Studios such as “Captain America,” “Thor,” and all three “Iron Man” movies, which star Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow. A few years ago, Ridosh, a member of both AIHA national and the Southern California Local Section, was assigned to be the project safety manager for the Agent Orange cleanup at the airport in Da Nang, Vietnam. The Synergist: What’s the objective of the cleanup at the airport in Da Nang?
Michael Ridosh:
The contamination in Da Nang is derived from the Vietnam War, during which the Da Nang Airport was a major U.S. military installation and one of three bases in the country where Agent Orange was handled in large quantities. Agent Orange was an herbicide that was applied to the jungles where the Viet Cong fighters were hiding, making it difficult for U.S. forces to attack. Agent Orange is a 50/50 mixture of the herbicides 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, and in order to spray it from an airplane from above, it was blended with fuel oil to form a liquid. Applicator airplanes would come to what was called the mixing and loading area at the base, where Agent Orange would be loaded into the airplanes to be sprayed over the jungles. We used airplanes like crop dusters to spray large tracts of jungle with this herbicide, killing the trees. In a matter of weeks, all the leaves would fall off the trees and the Viet Cong would have no shelter. When you have hundreds of 55-gallon drums of chemicals and you’re mixing them, pouring them into airplanes, and draining the tanks when the planes land, a whole lot of that material gets into the ground. There were several areas where drums of Agent Orange were stored, but the mixing and loading area at the airport was the most heavily contaminated. Runoff from the contaminated areas carried sediment into a small lake near the airport, so the sediment at the bottom of the lake was also contaminated with Agent Orange. Agent Orange itself is not all that harmful to humans, but in its manufacture, another chemical, dioxin, is formed. The herbicides manufactured by the chemical company contain very low levels of dioxin, but because dioxin is extremely toxic and they were handling literally millions of gallons of Agent Orange, dioxin is the contaminant of concern at the airport. Although Agent Orange is the source of the contamination, all of the sampling, analysis, testing, and personnel protection focuses on dioxin. The objective of the project is to excavate all the soil that’s contaminated with dioxin and then treat it to remove the dioxin. TS: How did you become assigned to the project? MR: I got this call asking if I’d like to go to Vietnam for a project that was estimated to last four years. Because of family, home, and business, I couldn’t go away for that long, but I agreed to go to initiate the project. The contract got held up in negotiations, but eventually I got another call that basically said, “You’re going to Vietnam next week.” I had to run and get shots, and they already had tickets for me. I ended up in Da Nang, Vietnam, having had no travel experience in Asia at all. There were a few Americans from around the country—a construction manager, a quality control manager, and me as health and safety manager—who went over there to initiate the project. I first spent two months in Vietnam in September and October 2012. I went back in April 2013 while the person they’d found to stay over there for an extended period took a leave to come home. I fell in love with Vietnam. I came home and told my wife we’re moving. My favorite word to describe it is “delightful”—everything about the culture, the place, the landscape, the people, the language. Well, we didn’t move, but I’ve gone back three times for one-month trips with my wife outside of work, bringing my time in Vietnam up to total of about six months.
Editor's note: Exclusive to the digital Synergist, Pole to Pole focuses on the challenges of practicing industrial and occupational hygiene around the world. Each month, the digital Synergist features an edited Q&A based on an interview with an industrial hygienist about how the IH/OH profession differs from country to country. The
previous installment
of “Pole to Pole” features AIHA member Jun Wang, who discussed IH in China. This month, the series focuses on Vietnam.
Pole to Pole:
An Interview with Michael Ridosh
"The contamination in Da Nang is derived from the Vietnam War, during which the Da Nang Airport was a major U.S. military installation and one of three bases in the country where Agent Orange was handled in large quantities."
-Michael Ridosh
TS: What sort of difficulties did you and your team encounter while working on the project?
MR: Well, Vietnam is a communist country, an authoritarian country, and it’s largely run by the military. We had a lot of interaction with what’s called the MND, the Ministry of National Defense, which is the army. The airport is under the jurisdiction of the Vietnamese army, so we had to spend some time developing access to the airport. We had to get photo IDs, questionnaires, interviews, and so forth to be able to get through the guard gates to even get into our job site. There was one hitch after another in getting the project started. Vietnam is still a bit of a third-world country, so just finding heavy equipment like bulldozers and excavators was an issue. You can imagine that whenever a piece of heavy equipment did come to the job site, it didn’t have rearview mirrors, backup alarms, horns, headlights, et cetera. We were mandated by our contracting agency to follow international health and safety standards, so we went through this whole process of rejecting equipment, reviewing equipment, and inspecting equipment. We spent about the first month doing all that. Next, we couldn’t begin moving any dirt until we established a perimeter of silt fence, which is about a two-foot-high plastic barrier that you surround a construction site with so that when rain comes, your disturbed soil doesn’t run off. Well, no one in Vietnam had ever heard of a silt fence, and they didn’t know what we were talking about. That took several more weeks, and it had to be imported from Indonesia, I believe. Then, when we needed diesel fuel for the excavators and the heavy equipment, it was delivered in a 55-gallon drum on a bicycle. The workers are all wearing flip flops, and we’re trying to explain the importance of traffic vests, hard hats, and steel-toed boots—they’re telling us there’s no such thing in Vietnam. We did find that there are safety equipment companies in Vietnam, but the workers were totally unfamiliar with any such thing. The upside is that the Vietnamese are wonderful people and the guys work hard. During our morning tailgate safety meetings, they were very attentive while we had a translator relaying things like, “It’s going to be rainy today and slip and fall is a hazard, so be sure to wear your safety vest and safety glasses.” The workers were conscientious and respectful, paid attention, and tried to do a good job of following our lead as to what we were asking them to do. TS: What other hazards were present on the job site? MR: Fall protection was an important concern. We heard stories from our workers who had worked on other projects, bridges, and buildings about people falling and being killed. Our structure was about 30 or 40 feet high, so we had to put in railing and cables and get the workers suited up in fall protection harnesses. That was a very strange experience for them because they weren’t used to it, and we had to be diligent in our enforcement. Another concern was unexploded ordnance, or UXO. Because it was a warzone, there’s any number of artillery shells, bombs, flares, hand grenades, machine gun rounds, and ammunition throughout the airport site. The MND, the Vietnamese military, presumably had gone through with metal detectors and cleared the whole area where we were working of UXO, but we did find things from time to time—but never anything that rose to the level of potentially fatal explosive materials. Sometimes it was just a metal pipe or a burned-out flare, but we did find hand grenades and other shells of different kinds, which were mostly dead or practice rounds. But we did have an alert almost on a daily basis. The personnel were trained that if they found anything at all suspicious to stop work and report it to the supervisor. The safety guy from our construction management company was a former navy SEAL and he was quite familiar with ordnance, so he and I and one or two others would go out with the supervisor and inspect the item. In some instances it was just an empty can that we’d pick up and throw away. We weren’t sure in other instances, so we would call the Vietnamese military. They’d come out and collect the item and take it away, and we never did know what happened to it after that.

TS: What sort of training did your team have to set up for the workers? MR:
There’s an OSHA requirement for hazardous waste workers of a 40-hour Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) training, which covers everything from the properties of chemicals and the hazards associated with chemical waste to protective clothing, respirators, gloves, boots, coveralls, emergency procedures to follow in the event of spills or fires, and so on. We set up a training session in an auditorium at one of the more upscale hotels in Da Nang. All the Vietnamese workers sat at desks with earphones, and there was a cubicle in the back where the translators sat. My associate and I presented hazardous waste safety training to around 50 workers at that time, and our presentation was translated simultaneously. We had PowerPoint presentations in both English and Vietnamese, plus handouts in Vietnamese. That was a major milestone in initiating the project. After that, we did a train-the-trainer course for some of the employees of the subcontracting company, which employed most of the laborers on the project. That way, those employees could train new personnel who would be added every couple of weeks.
TS: How would you describe the people in Vietnam? MR:
The Vietnamese people are just wonderful. The people we met through work and socially were so gracious, welcoming, and warm, and we ended up becoming almost family. We would be invited to birthday parties and weddings and to visit people’s homes. It was just a really spectacular experience from that perspective.