Unexpected natural and manmade incidents are becoming more and more common in the US. From wildfires, floods, and hurricanes to accidental chemical releases, wastewater spills, and gas line explosions - workers will face biological and environmental hazards that can cause serious injury or death.

During disaster recovery operations, it is essential to have safety guidelines in place along with access to equipment and clothing that will protect workers from health risks during cleanup operations. 

According to the CDC, specific steps should be taken to prevent employee exposure and injury when the following dangerous conditions are present after a disaster:

  • Storm water runoff hazards
  • Toxic fumes inhalation
  • Infection due to biological contaminants
  • Hazardous materials and chemicals
  • Electrical hazards

The above listed hazards are challenging because they are not always obvious to workers, until it is too late. That's why OSHA has devised a Disaster Recovery and Cleanup PPE Matrix (Publication 3898) to help employers and workers quickly identify the potential hazards associated with a particular disaster. For each specialized operation, OSHA has identified specific control measures and personal protective equipment (PPE) that can guard against potential dangers.

The Importance of a PPE Management Program

Disaster workers require the right level of personal protection equipment and clothing to fit the hazards within their work environment. This is where a PPE management program is helpful. The more prepared employees are at anticipating dangers, the greater success they will experience in recovery operations and in completing the restoration process.

Having a PPE management program in place allows for faster assignment of the right PPE protection during disaster cleanup efforts. The US Department of Health and Human Services has outlined four levels of employee protection designed to meet the level of hazard exposure. The highest level of protection - Level A calls for respiratory protection with air-purifying respirators along with a fully encapsulating chemical protective suit.

Subsequent levels B and C will have a lesser degree of respiratory protection but still require judgment of site-specific requirements for skin and eye protection. Chemical splash suits, disposable chemical resistant coveralls, and/or a full-face or half-mask are requirements at these levels of exposure. The fourth, Level D protection, is used primarily for nuisance contamination and requires coveralls and safety shoes/boots.

A PPE management program outlines which level of exposure is present and makes provisions for proper PPE implementation. As part of a PPE management program any workers responding to a disaster recovery scene should also be trained in the following:

  • OSHA safety training for natural and workplace hazards
  • Instruction on the proper donning and care of PPE
  • The limitations of protective clothing
  • Maintenance and disposal of PPE

Safety Tips During Disaster Recovery and Cleanup

Storm and Flooding Safety Tips

Storm water runoff following torrential rain events will present a wide range of hazards during cleanup. These include drowning, infections, and exposure to waterborne chemicals and waste. To remain safe, OSHA recommendations state that workers should observe some basic safety guidelines:

  • Water-laden objects can be very heavy, so care should be taken to avoid overexertion. Work should be performed in teams of two or more to avoid lifting materials weighing more than 50 pounds per person.
  • If hot weather is a factor, workers should be monitored for heat stress. Provide plenty of drinking water, frequent rest breaks and workers should wear loose-fitting water resistant clothing.
  • Basic PPE include steel-toed shoes and/or water-tight boots, water-resistant gloves and pants, and safety glasses. Soft-soled shoes should never be allowed due to the possibility of flesh punctures, bites or foot crushing injuries.
  • If the possibility of moldy building materials or airborne allergens such as dust, certain chemicals, or hay is present, a NIOSH-approved dust respirator should be worn to prevent respiratory distress that can be caused by inhaling mold spores in the dust from moldy grain, straw, or hay.
  • When handling water runoff that may contain unknown chemical solutions, workers should wear eye, hand, and face protection as appropriate.

Safety in the Presence of Toxic Fumes

The presence of toxic fumes during disaster cleanup efforts can be a secondary condition after a fire or explosion. At other times, airborne toxins are released when a workplace accident results in the release of stored or transported industrial chemicals that become aerosolized into the air. Toxic fume inhalation must be guarded against because when chemicals enter through the lungs, the toxins will disperse more rapidly throughout the entire body.

Exposure to toxic fumes may present a hazard that demands the highest level of protection. OSHA recommends a self-contained breathing apparatus or a positive-pressure supplied air respirator to protect against toxic fumes.

Since airborne toxins can also enter through the skin, a fully encapsulated chemical protective suit may be required - or at a minimum, workers should wear outer gloves, a cartridge or filter respirator, and a chemical resistant uniform.

Other tips when recovery cleanup may involve the inhalation of toxic fumes include:

  • PPE should be labeled as approved by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to make sure the respirator meets government standards and has been fully tested for compliance.
  • The right filter, cartridge, and respirator fit must be selected to suit the expected chemical exposure on site. Check the respirator's protection factor, which should have a PF rating of 10 or more.
  • A two-strap respirator is suggested for a better seal around the nose and mouth. Extra attention should be made when fitting workers that wear glasses or have beards, which can render a good respirator ineffective.

Guarding Against Infection and Disease

To protect disaster relief workers from biological pathogens or water/airborne pollutants that may cause illness, workers should understand how to eliminate any means of entry that these contaminants can make into the human body. These include mucous membranes, airways, the digestive tract, and the blood system by way of a cut or puncture wound. 

According to WHO guidelines, the best product for disinfecting surfaces is chlorine. This is a low-cost and effective solution to guard against infection due to waterborne pathogens. To reduce the chance of spreading communicable diseases during disaster recovery, employees should:

  • Wear eye protection such as chemical splash goggles, an N-95 respirator, protective overalls, gloves, long pants, and use bug screens or an EPA-registered insect repellent to prevent bug bites
  • Washing your hands often and paying attention to what items employees are touching is important to prevent the spread of infection. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Immediately clean out all open wounds and cuts with soap and water. Keep wounds covered with clean, dry bandages large enough to cover the wound and contain any drainage. Get evaluated for a tetanus vaccine following the injury. 

Safety During Hazardous Chemical Spills

Some chemical spills may contain toxic, biological, or radioactive substances, which require full hazmat operations according to government regulations. The US Office of Emergency Management will dictate a different response to these types of disasters based on the amount, type and location of the spill.

But even standard disaster recovery and cleanup operations may put workers at risk of exposure to hazardous materials or chemicals that can be present in factories, sewage, waterways, and even residential or commercial structures where mold or asbestos may be present.

Here are some tips to protect workers from the dangers of toxic chemical spills or other harmful substances when performing spill response cleanup operations:

  • Have available protective clothing, safety equipment, and cleanup materials to meet the requirements for the specific spill cleanup, including gloves, coveralls, and respirators.
  • Set up appropriate off-limit zones and procedures to keep unprotected workers or the public away from the chemical spill.
  • Always have the necessary fire suppression equipment at hand that all workers have knowledge of location and operation.
  • Maintain appropriate disposal containers to quarantine all spill cleanup materials and dispose of used PPE when necessary

Avoiding Electrical Shock Hazards

Electrical shock hazards are preventable, yet during natural disasters these incidents rank extremely high for the number of injuries sustained to both the community and to workers. Hurricanes and floods will result in downed power lines and electrified water. Workers that may be exposed to electrical shock must stay vigilant and carefully follow all safety measures until an area has been deemed safe from electrical shock hazards.

  • During disaster recovery operations, fallen power lines present a hazard. Employees should avoid touching fallen power lines at all costs.
  • Do not drive through standing water if downed power lines are in the water and stay in your vehicle when a power line falls across your car.
  • Wiring and electrical equipment that is wet or near water should be avoided and the power at the main breaker should first be switched off.
  • Never turn power on or off while standing in water or if you notice frayed electrical wires, sparks, or the smell of burning plastic.

Keeping workers safe during disaster cleanup and recovery should be a top priority to avoid the hazards present from multiple sources of danger. Always assess the potential danger before entering a disaster site and again before engaging in site-specific cleanup activities.

International Enviroguard is based in Mesquite, TX and is a manufacturer of workplace protection solutions and custom garments that protect workers during remediation and disaster cleanup operations.