How do you clean up after a hurricane? Carefully. Follow these hurricane cleanup safety tips to protect workers from common hazards.
Every year, hurricanes cause billions of dollars in damage across the country. While it may seem that the threat has passed once the storm is over, in reality, a different set of hurricane hazards emerge, making hurricane cleanup a potentially dangerous undertaking. Assessing the hazards and following some commonsense precautions can help protect the health of cleanup crews.
What damage can a hurricane cause?
With strong winds, ocean storm surges and large amounts of rain, hurricanes typically cause more damage than other weather events. Winds can down power lines, destroy buildings and infrastructure and shatter windows. Rain and floodwaters can lead to structural damage, mold growth and other issues.
Hurricanes can also damage or destroy equipment, from heavy equipment on a jobsite to transformers, generators and utility equipment.
Common post-storm hazards
When utility workers, construction workers and other responders arrive on-site to repair damage, they face a number of potential hazards. For example:
- Floodwaters can hide downed electrical wires.
- Portable generators used without proper ventilation can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Damaged, wet buildings can expose workers to mold.
- Unstable ground can increase the risk of falls and equipment tip-overs and may require additional planning before using scaffolding or heavy equipment.
- Wild animals including fire ants, snakes and rodents may seek higher ground indoors during flooding and pose a risk of bites.
- Storm debris can lead to cuts and punctures.
- Post-hurricane hazards are so prevalent that indirect hurricane deaths from causes such as electrocution are more common than direct hurricane deaths from causes such as storm surges.
Post-hurricane safety tips to keep in mind
To protect your team and get the cleanup job done without major delays due to accidents or injuries, follow these tips.
Require proper clothing and shoes
All workers performing hurricane cleanup should have proper clothing, including:
- Long sleeves and pants to protect against scrapes, insect bites, animal bites and the sun.
- Steel-toed boots to reduce the risk of slips and falls and prevent injury from debris that could puncture a boot.
- Insulating boots, also known as dielectric boots, when working in floodwaters that may contain hidden downed wires to help prevent electrocution.
- Heavy-duty gloves to protect against animal bites and cuts from debris.
Assess the site for potential hazards
Before beginning any work, stop and assess the situation.
- Conduct a visual inspection. Does the site containfloodwaters, debris, broken glass or visible downed wires?
- Check for structural integrity. Sagging floors or ceilings could indicate that a building has sustained structural damage. Workers should not enter buildings with suspected structural damage until they have been inspected.
- Use your sense of smell. Your nose can alert you to a gas leak or mold.
- Consider whether asbestos may be present. Hurricane damage can expose asbestos fibers. If you’re working around debris from a building constructed before 1980, the risk of asbestos contamination is high, and workers should wear a respirator when surveying the site. The laws regarding asbestos removal are complicated, so if you suspect asbestos, contact a licensed asbestos abatement professional.
Use PPE in the presence of mold
Mold thrives in warm, moist environments. Anyone working in an area where mold is present should wear a NIOSH-approved N95 disposable respirator. People who are working to remove mold need to take additional precautions, including:
- Wearing goggles to stop mold spores from getting into the eyes
- Using disposable personal protective equipment (PPE) including disposable clothing covers and long gloves
- Covering the surrounding area to prevent the spread of mold
Take electrocution risk seriously
Downed wires are a major concern during hurricane cleanup and are a common cause of death. To reduce the risk of electrocution:
- Assume all wires are live.
- Stay at least 10 feet backfrom downed wires. The ground, trees, bushes and structures such as fences and buildings around downed wires can carry a charge.
- Mark a danger zone around downed wires.
- Contact the utility company. Only properly trained and equipped workers should attempt to repair a downed wire.
Proper ventilation can mitigate post-storm hazards such as mold and carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Open doors and windows to air out the area before working. Keep the windows open and fans blowing while you work, especially if you’re removing mold.
- Follow portable generator safety tips when using a portable generator. Never use a generator indoors or in an enclosed space.
Practice good hygiene
Standing water poses a risk of infection from viruses and bacteria. It’s important that workers have access to water, soap and hand sanitizer so they can practice good hygiene on the job.
- Regularly wash hands to reduce the risk of infection.
- Wash minor cuts with mild soap and water to remove dirt or debris. Encourage workers to see a doctor if the cut is the result of an animal bite or dirty object.
Stay up to date with tetanus vaccines
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults get a tetanus booster shot every 10 years. If you have a puncture wound, or if a dirty object has broken your skin, a doctor may recommend a tetanus shot if you aren’t certain when you had your last one.
Assessing likely hazards and taking proper precautions during hurricane cleanup is essential to reducing the risk of injury and illness — and to providing the safe working conditions OSHA requires.