OSHA Issues Alert on the Dangers Associated with Cleanup from Hurricanes

Sept. 3, 2004
OSHA is urging employers and workers to take appropriate safety measures to avoid injury and illnesses associated with the recovery and cleanup efforts following hurricanes.

With Hurricane Frances bearing down on the Florida coast, and Hurricane Charlie cleanup still underway, the potential for fatal accidents involving electrocution from power lines, as well as serious injuries associated with tree trimming, have prompted the agency to remind employers, workers and the public to ensure that they observe appropriate safety and health precautions while performing cleanup and utility restoration operations. This includes coordinating with control centers responsible for power circuits so that workers do not enter areas where there are live wires.

"The hurricane season is now upon us," said OSHA Administrator John Henshaw, "and it's important to remember that even when the storm has past, the dangers are not-particularly for workers restoring power lines, cutting down tree limbs and doing other cleanup and recovery work. This kind of work is hazardous and accidents can cost lives."

Information on avoiding hazards and safely cleaning up after a hurricane is available from OSHA to help workers who are involved in recovery and restoration efforts. Three fact sheets - Cleanup Hazards, Flood Cleanup and Fungi - are available on OSHA's Web site at www.osha.gov. A Safety and Health Information Bulletin on mold safety and remediation is also available.

"Cleanup Hazards" gives people involved in cleanup operations tips on avoiding injuries and health hazards, such as how to avoid electrical hazards and fires, and suggestions on clothing and personal protective equipments to wear while cleaning up. Cleanup work of any kind is hazardous, but flood conditions make it even more so.

Health tips offered by the agency while cleaning up after natural disasters that involve flooding include:

  • Take frequent rest breaks when lifting heavy, water-laden objects. Avoid overexertion and practice good lifting techniques. To help prevent injury, use teams of two or more to move bulky objects; avoid lifting any materials that weigh more than 50 pounds per person, and use proper automated lifting assistance devices if practical.
  • When working in hot environments, have plenty of drinking water available, use sunscreen, and take frequent rest breaks. Wear light-colored, loose-fitting clothing.
  • Be sure a first-aid kit is available to disinfect any cuts or abrasions. Protect open cuts and abrasions with waterproof gloves or dressings.
  • Wash your hands often during the day, especially before eating, drinking or applying cosmetics.
  • General precautions during cleanup operations include:
  • Use a wooden stick or pole to check flooded areas for pits, holes and protruding objects before entering.
  • Ensure that all ladders and scaffolds are properly secured prior to use.
  • Conduct a preliminary worksite inspection to verify stability before entering a flooded or formerly flooded building or before operating vehicles over roadways or surfaces. Don't work in or around any flood-damaged building until it has been examined and certified as safe for work by a registered professional engineer or architect.
  • Washouts, trenches, excavations and gullies must be supported or their stability verified prior to worker entry. All trenches should be supported (e.g., with a trench box); if no support is available, the trench must be sloped at no less than a 1:1 (45°) angle for cohesive soil and 1:1 (34°) angle for granular soils including gravel, sand and loamy sand or submerged soil or soil from which water is freely seeping.
  • Establish a plan for contacting medical personnel in the event of an emergency.
  • Report any obvious hazards (downed power lines, frayed electric wires, gas leaks or snakes) to appropriate authorities.
  • Use fuel-powered generators outdoors. Do not bring them indoors.
  • Use life-vests when engaged in activities that could result in deep water exposure.
  • Use extreme caution when handling containers holding unknown substances or known toxic substances (for example, floating containers of household or industrial chemicals). Contact the Environmental Protection Agency for information on disposal at the National Response Center (1-800-424-8802).
  • Do not use improvised surfaces (e.g., refrigerator racks) for cooking food or for boiling water to avoid exposure to heavy metals.

Tips for clothing and personal protective equipment include:

  • Always wear water-tight boots with steel toe and insole, gloves, long pants and safety glasses during cleanup operations; sneakers should not be worn because they will not prevent punctures, bites or crush injuries. Wear a hardhat if there is any danger of falling debris.
  • Wear a NIOSH-approved dust respirator if working with moldy building materials or vegetable matter (hay, stored grain, or compost).
  • When handling bleach or other chemicals, follow the directions on the package; wear eye, hand and face protection as appropriate; and have plenty of clean water available for eye wash and other first-aid treatments.

Tips for electrical hazards include:

  • Do not touch downed power lines or any object or water that is in contact with such lines.
  • Treat all power lines as energized until you are certain that the lines have been de-energized.
  • Beware of overhead and underground lines when clearing debris. Extreme caution is necessary when moving ladders and other equipment near overhead power lines to avoid inadvertent contact.
  • If damage to an electrical system is suspected (for example, if the wiring has been under water, you can smell burning insulation, wires are visibly frayed, or you see sparks), turn off the electrical system in the building and follow lockout/tagout procedures before beginning work. Do not turn the power back on until electrical equipment has been inspected by a qualified electrician.
  • When using a generator, be sure that the main circuit breaker is off and locked out prior to starting the generator. This will prevent inadvertent energization of power lines from backfeed electrical energy from generators and help protect utility line workers from possible electrocution.
  • Be aware that de-energized power lines may become energized by a secondary power source such as a portable backup generator.
  • Any electrical equipment, including extension cords, used in wet environments must be marked, as appropriate, for use in wet locations and must be undamaged. Be sure that all connections are out of water.
  • All cord-connected, electrically operated tools and equipment must be grounded or be double insulated.
  • Ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) must be used in all wet locations. Portable GFCIs can be purchased at hardware stores.

Fire protection precautions include:

  • Immediately evacuate any building that has a gas leak until the leak is controlled and the area ventilated.
  • Be sure an adequate number of fire extinguishers are available and re-evaluate the fire evacuation plan.
  • Be sure all fire exits are clear of debris and sand bags.

Other fact sheets from OSHA include: Flood Cleanup, which discusses the hazards contained in floodwater, how to protect against contamination or disease from exposure to floodwater, and what to do if symptoms of illness develop after exposure to floodwater.

Fungi, which contains information on fungal diseases and conditions that can develop after floods, tips on protecting workers against exposure, and suggestions on what to do if symptoms develop after potential exposures.

Mold Safety and Health Information Bulletin (SHIB), which offers recommendations on how to prevent mold growth and how to protect workers involved in the prevention and cleanup of mold.

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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