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November 7, 2017

Staying Safe During Disaster Cleanup

Following a natural disaster, the difficult - and dangerous - work of cleanup, restoration and recovery begins. Beyond obvious hazards of debris piles and flood waters, there are a wide range of potentially dangerous materials and activities often associated with disaster recovery. Here are some tips from OSHA on staying safe:

Stay Out of Flood Waters

Even though it may be tempting to wade in flood waters, flooded areas may be deeper than they look, and water levels can rise unexpectedly. Flood waters can also contain dangerous debris that can cause cuts and puncture wounds. Water is sometimes also contaminated with chemicals and germs that can make people sick. Stay out of flood waters unless it is absolutely necessary to evacuate an area.

Avoid Electrical Hazards

Workers can expect to find standing water anywhere in 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. Assume any downed electrical lines are energized and don’t come within 10 feet of them. Repairing downed electrical lines is a task that should be left to trained utility workers.

Safely Remove Debris

Debris and downed trees can hide electrical lines, which carry a risk of electrocution. Falling tree limbs and improper use of chainsaws and wood chippers present additional hazards. Proceed with caution around debris, and use proper protective equipment when operating power tools. Slips, trips and falls are other common hazards when clearing debris. Watch your step on slippery and uneven surfaces.

Breathe Easy

Gasoline- and diesel-powered generators, pumps, and pressure washers all release carbon monoxide, a deadly, odorless gas. Only operate these machines outdoors and never inside confined spaces. Mold – which can cause respiratory illness, eye irritation, and skin rash – often appears after flooding. You can clean items with detergent and water, and disinfect cleaned surfaces with 0.25 cups of household bleach in one gallon of water for light contamination, and up to 1.5 cups of bleach per gallon of water for heavier contamination. Do not mix bleach with other cleaning products that contain ammonia.

Additional respiratory threats can come from lead paint, drywall or cement dust, and other sources. Approved respirators are good precautions against airborne hazards.

Keep Your Cool

Heavy labor and low water intake while conducting flood cleanup in high temperatures and humidity can lead to heat illness, exhaustion, and stroke. Drink plenty of water and take regular breaks in shaded or, if available, air-conditioned areas.

Avoid Wild Animals

Avoid contact with wild or stray animals. If contact is unavoidable, wear protective gloves and wash your hands regularly. Approach piles of debris with caution and if you see a snake, fire ants, or other creatures that could bite or sting, step away. Insect repellents and protective clothing – including long pants, socks, gloves, boots, and long-sleeved shirts – can provide extra protection. Seek immediate medical attention if you are bitten by a wild animal. Only trained workers should attempt to rescue stranded or injured animals.

The OSHA Flood Preparedness and Response page provides a summary of common hazards associated with floods, as well as additional resources.

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