The Safety Engineer: How Joe Cocciardi Found His Road

Josh Gosfield/Illustration

“My father was a fireman in Jersey City, so I’m used to emergencies. We all know what a big fire looks like. But what does a pandemic or a nuclear power failure or a food contamination crisis look like? You look out your window and it looks like every other day. The things my father did with hoses, ladders, and fire boats, we do with respirators, safety equipment, and public information. I’m in industrial hygiene, which means I design safety systems to protect people. I’ve been doing it for 40 years. I have my own company but when there’s a local, national, or global emergency, I get the call—Haitian Earthquake, 9/11, Sandy Hook, BP oil spill. I’m part of what we call an Incident Management Team. We have about 100 people with specific expertise—management, administration, logistics. In my case, safety engineering. They are two teams, an East and a West team. When an event happens everyone on the team is alerted, and the team’s activated. You’ll never see our names in the paper but there are a lot of Spider-Men like me out there protecting people. We operate under the radar, below the level of politics, and notoriety. In this case, I work with doctors and nurses in federal facilities, quarantine stations, and anywhere we’ve been requested by local governments. The doctors and nurses do the exact same thing they do every day, but now they have a different sanitation and decon procedure. They have to do it with a mask, gloves, and protective gown. It’s a massive change. I don’t tell them how to take a pulse, I tell them how to take a pulse with gloves on. I get people to engineer themselves so they can be as Herculean as possible. A lot of people on the local level are doing great work—like the Minutemen in the American Revolution—so I’m more optimistic than pessimistic about getting through this. I’ve learned no matter what the crisis is, there’s always a way out. For me, winning the game doesn’t mean being on Wide World of Sports, it means everybody else gets to watch whatever they want on TV and I get to sit on my back porch with a Corona.”

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