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Seasonal Safety: Protecting Employees from the Hazards of Flooding

Nov. 6, 2015
Floods can be devastating and are one of the most common weather-related hazards in the United States.

While many of us don't think of flooding when we think about seasonal safety, recent events – such as massive floods in the south and flash flooding in California that triggered massive mudslides – serve as a reminder that ice, snow and heat are not the only seasonal safety hazards.

Flooding can be caused by a variety of factors, including a sudden accumulation of rain, rising rivers, tidal surges, ice jams and dam failures. Workers who have to respond to flooded areas face the greatest risks from floods, but all workers can help protect themselves by preparing evacuation plans and learning about the hazards commonly associated with floods.

Planning Ahead

Having an evacuation plan in place before a flood (or any emergency) occurs can help avoid confusion and prevent injuries and property damage. A thorough evacuation plan should include:

  • Conditions that will activate the plan.
  • Chain of command.
  • Emergency functions and who will perform them.
  • Specific evacuation procedures, including routes and exits.
  • Procedures for accounting for personnel, customers and visitors.
  • Equipment for personnel.
  • A review of the plan with workers.

According to OSHA, "Each employer is responsible for the safety and health of its workers and for providing a safe and healthful workplace for its workers. Employers are required to protect workers from the anticipated hazards associated with the flood response and recovery operations that workers are likely to conduct."

Response and Recovery

In the aftermath of a flood, workers may be involved in a variety of response and recovery operations. Workers who are involved in assessing or cleaning up the damage to their work sites are at risk as are workers who provide services such as utility restoration, spills clean up and search and rescue.

Hazards and Precautions

Driving during flood conditions –Nearly half of flood fatalities are vehicle related. Six inches of standing water is enough to stall some cars; a foot of water can float a vehicle; and two feet of moving water is enough to sweep a car away. Remind employees that if the water level is rising around their vehicles, they should abandon the vehicles.

Electrical hazards – Workers can expect to find standing water present throughout a flood zone. If water has been present anywhere near electrical circuits and electrical equipment, turn off the power at the main breaker or fuse on the service panel. Never enter flooded areas or touch electrical equipment if the ground is wet.

Workers who are not with a utility should stay clear of downed or damaged power lines, establish a safe distance from the lines and report the incident to the responsible authority. Utility workers repairing downed electrical lines must be trained in the hazards associated with maintenance on overhead lines, as well as the potential for emergency conditions to create additional hazards. When working on downed or damaged power lines, electrical workers must use proper electrical safety work practices and personal protective equipment.

Tree and debris removal  – When floods occur, debris and downed trees can block public roads and damage power lines. When removing trees and clearing debris, there are potential hazards of electrocution from contact with downed power lines or tree limbs in contact with power lines, falls from heights and being struck or crushed by falling tree limbs. Another potential hazard of tree and debris removal is being injured by equipment such as chain saws and chippers.

Proper protective equipment, including gloves, chaps, foot protection, eye protection, fall protection, hearing protection and head protection, must be used when using chainsaws and chippers to clear downed trees.

Carbon monoxide – Gasoline and diesel-powered generators, pumps and pressure washers all release carbon monoxide, a deadly, colorless, odorless gas. These devices must be operated out of doors and never inside confined spaces.

Lifting injuries  – Workers involved in flood preparation and cleanup activities are at risk of back, knee and shoulder injuries from manual lifting and handling of building materials, sandbags and fallen tree limbs. To help prevent injuries, use proper lifting techniques and teams of two or more to move bulky and heavy items.

Mold – Mold exposure can cause sneezing, runny nose, eye irritation, cough and congestion, aggravation of asthma and dermatitis (skin rash). Make sure that work areas are well ventilated. Use hand, eye and respiratory protection such as a N-95 respirator. Discard mold-damaged materials in plastic bags. Clean wet items and surfaces with detergent and water. Disinfect cleaned surfaces with ¼ to 1½ cup household bleach in 1 gallon of water. Do not mix bleach with other cleaning products that contain ammonia.

Rodents, snakes and insects – To protect yourself from biting and stinging insects, wear long pants, socks and long-sleeved shirts. Use insect repellents that contain DEET or Picaridin. Dead and live animals can spread diseases such as rat bite fever and rabies. If bitten or scratched, get medical attention immediately.

Watch where you place your hands and feet when removing debris. If possible, don't place your fingers under debris you are moving. Wear heavy gloves. If you see a snake, step back and allow it to proceed. Wear boots at least 10 inches high. Watch for snakes sunning on fallen trees, limbs or other debris. A snake's striking distance is about one half the total length of the snake.

Chemical and biological hazards – Liquefied petroleum gases and underground storage tanks, along with other chemical containers, may break away and float downstream, causing hazards from their released contents. Floodwaters also may contain biohazards due to direct contamination by untreated raw sewage, dead animals, rotting food, etc. Avoid contact and practice good personal hygiene practices.

Fire – Floods can damage fire protection systems, delay response times of emergency responders and disrupt water distribution systems. All of these factors lead to increased dangers from fire and decreasing firefighter capabilities.

Drowning – Anytime workers are exposed to moving water, their chances for accidental drowning increase. Workers should not work alone and should wear a Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device when working in or near water.

Hypothermia – Hypothermia is a condition brought on when the body temperature drops to less than 95°F. Standing or working in water that is cooler than 75°F will remove body heat more rapidly than it can be replaced, resulting in hypothermia. Symptoms of hypothermia include uncontrollable shivering, slow speech, memory lapses, frequent stumbling, drowsiness and exhaustion. Workers should select proper clothing for cold, wet and windy conditions.

Exhaustion – Workers involved in response operations often are called upon to work extended hours under stressful conditions. This working environment increases the risk of injury due to inattentiveness and also makes workers more vulnerable to stress-induced illness and disease.

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