Flood Preparedness and Response
In the aftermath of a flood, workers may be involved in a variety of response and recovery operations. The following are general guidelines that may be applicable to workers involved in assessing and/or cleaning up the damage to their worksite. However, some operations, such as utility restoration, cleaning up spills of hazardous materials, and search and rescue, should only be conducted by workers who have the proper training, equipment and experience.
Driving during Flood Conditions
It’s important to be careful when 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. If the water level is rising around your vehicle, you should abandon the vehicle.
Be wary of unknown road conditions. Do not try to cross flooded roadways if you do not know the depth of the water.
Hazards and Precautions
The OSHA Resources page has QuickCards™ and Fact Sheets that provide details about hazards present in flooded areas and after a flood has occurred. The information below provides a brief summary of some of the most common hazards associated with floods as well as precautions that can be taken to protect against those hazards:
- Electrical hazards
- Tree and debris removal
- Carbon monoxide
- Lifting injuries
- Rodents, Snakes and Insects
- Chemical and biological hazards
- Hypothermia (due to the cold weather and water exposure)
- Exhaustion (from working extended shifts)
Where would I expect to find electrical hazards after a flood?
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.
What hazards exist when repairing downed or damaged power lines and what protective measures should be used?
Workers repairing downed electrical lines must be aware of the hazards associated with maintenance on overhead lines, as well as the potential for emergency conditions to create additional hazards. Such work must be performed by utility company workers or other properly trained workers. Potential hazards include:
- Electrocution by contact with downed energized lines, or objects in contact with fallen lines.
- Falls from heights.
- Being struck or crushed by falling poles, towers and tree limbs.
- Being injured in vehicular accidents when responding to an emergency situation.
- Burns from fires caused by energized line contact or equipment failure.
Stay well clear of any downed or damaged power lines. Establish a safe distance from the lines and report the incident to the responsible authority. Work on damaged power lines must only be performed by properly trained electrical utility workers. Electrical utility workers must first assess the hazards present in order to minimize the chances of exacerbating the situation. Ideally the lines involved should be de-energized, but this may not be possible in all situations. When working on downed or damaged power lines, electrical workers must utilize proper electrical safety work practices and personal protective equipment.
What hazards exist during removal of downed trees and debris after a flood, and what safety precautions should be taken?
When floods occur, debris and downed trees can block public roads and damage power lines. As with the electrical hazards, 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 the equipment, such as chain saws and chippers (see OSHA's QuickCards™ on Chain Saw Safety and Chipper Machine Safety).
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.
Only appropriate power equipment that is built to be used outdoors and in wet conditions should be used. All saws, chippers, and other tools should be used properly and according to their intended application. All equipment should be well-maintained and functioning correctly. In addition, all equipment should have proper guarding, working controls, and other safety features as installed by the manufacturer.
Lifting injuries - QuickCard™
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 can often be recognized by sight or smell. It may appear as colored woolly mats, or it may produce a foul, musty, earthy smell. Mold exposure can cause sneezing, runny nose, eye irritation, cough and congestion, aggravation of asthma, and dermatitis (skin rash). Individuals with allergies, asthma, sinusitis, or other lung diseases and individuals with weakened immune systems are at the greatest risk of health effects from exposure to mold.
What precautions should be taken when cleaning up mold?
Identify and correct moisture problems. Make sure that work areas are well ventilated. Use hand, eye, and respiratory protection. A N-95 respirator is recommended. Discard mold damaged materials in plastic bags. Clean wet items and surfaces with detergent and water. Disinfect cleaned surfaces with 1/4 to 1 1/2 cup household bleach in 1 gallon of water. CAUTION: Do not mix bleach with other cleaning products that contain ammonia.
What precautions should be taken against 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. Treat bites and stings with over-the-counter products that relieve pain and prevent infection. Watch out for fire ants; their bites are painful and cause blisters. Severe reactions to fire ant bites (chest pain, nausea, sweating, loss of breath, serious swelling or slurred speech) require immediate medical treatment.
What precautions should be taken against rodents and wild or stray animals?
Dead and live animals can spread diseases such as Rat Bite Fever and Rabies. Avoid contact with wild or stray animals. Avoid contact with rats or rat-contaminated buildings, and if you can’t avoid contact, wear protective gloves and wash your hands regularly. Get rid of dead animals as soon as possible. If bitten/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 ½ the total length of the snake.
What steps should be taken if someone is bitten by a snake?
If bitten, note the color and shape of the snake’s head to help with treatment. Keep bite victims still and calm to slow the spread of venom in case the snake is poisonous. Seek medical attention as soon as possible. Do not cut the wound or attempt to suck out the venom. Apply first aid: lay the person down so that the bite is below the level of the heart, and cover the bite with a clean, dry dressing.
Liquefied Petroleum Gases (LPG) and underground storage tanks, along with other chemical containers, may break away and float downstream, causing hazards from their released contents. Floodwaters may also contain biohazards due to direct contamination by untreated raw sewage, dead animals, rotting food, etc. Avoiding contact, good personal hygiene practices, medical surveillance, and discarding all food that comes in contact with flood waters are all important controls.
Fire - Fact Sheet
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.
Anytime workers are exposed to moving water, their chances for accidental drowning increase. Even good swimmers are easily overcome by swift-moving water. Workers should not work alone and should wear a Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device (PFD) when working in or near water.
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. This should include dry clothing, underwear that will keep water away from the skin (polypropylene), layers of clothing to adjust to changing environmental temperatures, and a hat and gloves. Take frequent short breaks in warm dry shelters to allow the body to warm up. Perform work during the warmest part of the day. Avoid exhaustion or fatigue because energy is needed to keep muscles warm. Use the buddy system (work in pairs). Drink warm, sweet beverages (sugar water, sports-type drinks). Avoid drinks with caffeine (coffee, tea, or hot chocolate) or alcohol. Eat warm, high-calorie foods like hot pasta dishes.
Exhaustion - Extended/Unusual Work Shifts
Workers involved in response operations are often 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.
What are Heat Stroke and Heat Exhaustion and what are the symptoms?
Heat Stroke is the most serious heat-related health problem. Heat stroke occurs when the body's temperature regulating system fails and body temperature rises to critical levels (greater than 104°F).This is a medical emergency that may result in death! The signs of heat stroke are confusion, loss of consciousness and seizures. Workers experiencing heat stroke have a very high body temperature and may stop sweating.
Heat Exhaustion is the next most serious heat-related health problem. The signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion are headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness, irritability, confusion, thirst, heavy sweating and a body temperature greater than 100.4°F.
What steps should be taken if workers show signs of heat stroke or heat stress?
- Call a supervisor for help. If the supervisor is not available, call 911.
- Have someone stay with the worker until help arrives.
- Move the worker to a cooler/shaded area.
- Remove outer clothing.
- Fan and mist the worker with water; apply ice (ice bags or ice towels).
- Provide cool drinking water, if the worker is able to drink.
What precautions should be taken to protect against heat illness?
To protect workers from heat stress, employers should:
- Provide training about the hazards leading to heat stress and how to prevent them.
- Provide a lot of cool water to workers close to the work area. At least one pint of water per hour is needed.
- Schedule frequent rest periods with water breaks in shaded or air-conditioned areas.
- Routinely check workers who are at risk of heat stress due to protective clothing and high temperature.
- Consider protective clothing that provides cooling.
Workers should take the following steps to protect themselves from heat illness:
- Know signs/symptoms of heat illnesses; monitor yourself; use a buddy system.
- Block out direct sun and other heat sources.
- Drink plenty of fluids. Drink often and BEFORE you are thirsty.
- Avoid beverages containing alcohol or caffeine.
- Wear lightweight, light colored, loosefitting clothes.
- Be aware that poor physical condition, some health problems (such as high blood pressure or diabetes), pregnancy, colds and flu, and some medications can increase your personal risk. If you are under treatment, ask your healthcare provider.
For more information on flood response and recovery issues, visit the following resources:
- After a Flood. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- Creating A Healthy Home - A Field Guide For Clean-Up of Flooded Homes. National Center for Healthy Housing.