ASSE: Resume Work Safely Following a Major Storm

Aug. 5, 2008
The American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) and its members offer tips to help communities and businesses safely resume operations following major storms.

ASSE President Warren K. Brown pointed out that while there is no one-size-fits-all solution for business resumption following a disaster, businesses should conduct a hazard evaluation and assessment performed by a safety and health professional.

The following tips can help ensure a safe return to normal operations:

Emergency Planning and Procedures. First, ensure that there is a clear path for the evacuation of employees. Verify that fire extinguishers are operable and check for damage and serviceability to determine if any fire extinguishers were used during the disaster. If damage is found, these items should be replaced immediately. A company also should review and update its emergency plan and distribute it to employees as they return to work. In addition, designate a place for employees to gather once they are out of the building as well as a phone number they should call following an emergency so everyone can be accounted for. Frequently update the emergency contact list.

Employee Communications. Find out if your employees are safe. If any employees were injured, follow your company emergency action plan and assist them as necessary. Once you have learned the facts involving any damage your staff or business may have sustained, evaluate the next steps and communicate your plan with your employees, emergency personnel (city, state and federal), and the community you do business in, your customers, vendors and other organizations you work with.

Structural Security. Have a qualified professional evaluate the structural integrity of the building or facility.

Safe Entry. Contact the proper government agencies to get approval to resume occupancy of the building. Do not enter a facility or building unless the proper clearances have been attained for everyone’s safety.

Clean-Up Safety. Implement your clean-up and business resumption processes in a safe and healthful manner. Provide training in proper selection and use of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as eyewear, gloves and dust mask/respirators for cleaning.

After a Flood. After a flood, FEMA suggests listening for news reports to learn whether the community’s water supply is safe to drink; avoiding floodwaters which may be contaminated by oil, gasoline, or raw sewage and may also be electrically charged from underground or downed power lines; avoiding moving water; being aware of areas where floodwaters have receded as roads may have weakened and could collapse under the weight of a car; staying away from downed power lines and reporting them to the power company; returning home or to your business only when authorities indicate it is safe to do so; staying out of any building surrounded by floodwaters; using extreme caution when entering buildings as there may be hidden damage, particularly in foundations; servicing damaged septic tanks, cesspools, pits and leaching systems as soon as possible; and cleaning and disinfecting everything that got wet as mud left from floodwater can contain sewage and chemicals.

Air Quality Assessment. Make sure the atmosphere in the workplace environment is tested for asbestos and other chemical/toxic agents. Air quality is a key concern when restarting business operations.

Ventilation. Have vents checked to assure water heaters and gas furnaces are clear and operable. Dust and debris can stop or impede airflow, decreasing its quality and healthfulness. Safely start up heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, which includes prior inspection of power lines, before energizing and pressurizing the systems. Test your systems now after inspection or have a qualified specialist do so. Blowing cold air through HVAC systems first, as opposed to warm air, can help prevent the growth of mold in duct systems.

Interior, Exterior Exposures. For interior spaces, ensure no wall or ceiling materials are in danger of falling. If such exposures do exist, the work environment is not ready for occupancy. Check for cracked windows and outside building materials, which could fall onto pedestrians at any time – now and in the future.

Protection Equipment. Ensure that the fire and smoke alarms have been cleaned and tested before reoccupying the building. If such systems are wired into other systems, ensure that they are still compatible and work in an efficient and effective manner. Thorough inspection of fire-fighting systems such as sprinkler and chemical equipment functions is a must.

Electrical Safety. Check the electrical systems, computer cables and telecommunications equipment to ensure they are still safe and that there is no danger of exposure to electricity. Wiring inspections should be conducted from the outside in to ensure all wiring and connections are not in danger of shorting out due to water damage from rain or firefighting efforts.

Use Existing Federal Guidelines. Utilize existing start-up guidance materials provided by government agencies such as FEMA,, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health,

Health/Sanitation Issues. The general facility sanitation systems should be inspected and tested to guard against potential employee exposure to toxic agents. Food sanitation also is important, and any unused food should be discarded. If the workspace has a kitchen, inspect oven hoods and other ventilation devices to ensure they are not clogged and are working efficiently.

Office Furniture. Inspect the furniture to ensure it can withstand expected loads and usages. Ensure that binder bins (storage devices screwed or bolted to railing systems on walls and panels) have not become unstable due to water damage. Inspect office equipment to ensure it is level, stable and cannot tip over.

Lighting. Make sure the facility has maintained adequate illumination levels. Emergency lighting should be checked to ensure it operates and functions in correctly.

Solid/Hazardous Waste Material. Broken glass, debris or other materials with sharp edges should be safely gathered and disposed immediately. Ensure that such materials can be disposed before collection to avoid creating even bigger hazards for both employees and the public. Solid waste disposal will be an issue, especially if hazardous waste is involved. Evaluate waste disposal issues prior to beginning clean-up operations to ensure it can be properly disposed.

Power Checks. If there is no access to electricity on the site, do not use fueled generators or heaters indoors. Ensure that there are no gas and sewer leaks in the facility. You will need to check with your local utilities for information regarding power, gas, water, and sewer usage.

Check Mainframes. If your facility has mainframe computer applications, check the lines and cabling for chiller systems to avoid chemical leaks.

Machine Inspections. Inspect the condition of the drain, fill, plumbing and hydraulic lines on processes and machines. In addition, evaluating and testing plumbing lines evaluated can detect the presence of hazardous gases.

Surfaces. Make sure flooring surfaces are acceptable and free from hazards that could lead to slips, trips and falls – the second-leading cause of on-the-job deaths in the United States. ANSI standard A1264 is a good starting point.

Transportation. For employees who will be driving, check the condition of the roads (such as the presence of downed power lines) to make sure they will be safe. Although the roadway is not a closed environment and roadway conditions cannot be controlled, employers can take steps to protect their employees by assigning a management team member, such as the occupational safety and health professional, to set and enforce a comprehensive company driver safety policy; enforce mandatory seat belt use; not require workers to drive irregular hours or far beyond their normal work hours; not require them to conduct business on a cell phone while driving; and developing work schedules that allow employees to follow hours-of-service regulations. In addition, adopt a structured vehicle maintenance program and provide vehicles with the highest levels of occupant protection.

About the Author

Laura Walter

Laura Walter was formerly senior editor of EHS Today. She is a subject matter expert in EHS compliance and government issues and has covered a variety of topics relating to occupational safety and health. Her writing has earned awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), the Trade Association Business Publications International (TABPI) and APEX Awards for Publication Excellence. Her debut novel, Body of Stars (Dutton) was published in 2021.

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