When hurricane season rolls around, workers and emergency crews have to race to help save people, animals, and property whenever possible. While these crews perform admirable work, they are also putting their own health and safety at risk to save others. To help mitigate additional injuries and incidents, workers must wear the right gear and follow proper procedures.
This article uncovers the top safety precautions for floods, such as those caused by hurricanes. Here is everything you need to know.
Stats on Hurricanes, Storms, and Flooding
On average, the United States experiences about 12 hurricanes per year, on top of named storms and tropical cyclones (which are different). In recent years, this average has been increasing, with 30 total named storms, 14 of which were classified as hurricanes.
Beyond hurricanes, all parts of the U.S. can experience flooding for various reasons. Heavy runoff from frozen snowpack and heavy rain are the most common causes of floods, and these triggers can happen across the country. As with hurricanes, flooding is becoming more commonplace, and the price tag for each flood is also increasing. In 2019, there were 10 disasters that cost over $1 billion in repairs.
Overall, hurricanes and flooding are pretty common, and they're only becoming more frequent. So, it's never been more imperative for emergency crews to practice flood safety tips.
The Five Hazards of Storm, Flood, and Hurricane Response
The dangers of flood water may not always be apparent. The CDC classifies five distinct hazards for crews working in flooded areas. Not all situations present all five risks, but teams should be prepared for them as much as possible. It's always better to be overprepared than underprepared. Otherwise, accidents and injuries can happen.
The five hazards include:
Sharp, Jagged Debris
Since floodwaters can stir up mud, dirt, and other debris, it's impossible to see what's beneath the surface of the water. Depending on the cause of the flood, rushing water can move heavy objects like cars, traffic signs, and other infrastructure. As workers move through the water, they may scrape against sharp, jagged debris.
This debris can be glass, metal, or biological (i.e., broken tree limbs). Contact with this debris can cause immediate injuries like cuts and lacerations, as well as secondary injuries from pathogens and bacteria in the water (more on those later).
PPE for Sharp Debris
Workers should wear thick, tear-resistant clothing and gloves at all times. Thin, rubber gloves can get ripped or torn easily, making them less than ideal for any situation. However, if workers don't have thick PPE materials, they can wear multiple layers to get a similar effect. Goggles and helmets are also highly recommended because of the enhanced risk of slips and falls.
There are actually a few potential risks from working in floodwater for an extended period. Let's break them down:
- Pathogens- Bacteria and viruses can thrive in floodwaters, particularly when it's stagnant and not flowing. There may be sewage, dead animals, or human fatalities in the water as well, creating more hazardous pathogens.
- Chemicals- As floods damage vehicles and infrastructure, they can cause dangerous chemicals and synthetic agents to mix into the water. Examples can include gasoline, motor oil, and industrial cleaners.
- Body Temperature Fluctuations- If floodwater is warmer than the body (i.e., above 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit), workers can't cool off as they move around. If the water is much cooler than the body, individuals can lose too much heat through thermal transference. According to the CDC, water temps at or below 75 degrees F are dangerous for extended periods.
PPE for Floodwater Exposure
Gloves and thick clothing are recommended, as are personal flotation devices if the floodwaters are above waist level. The CDC also warns against repeated use of non-breathable gloves, as they can irritate the skin and cause it to rub off over time, creating injuries and pathways for diseases to enter the body.
In most cases, masks and respirators are not necessary unless toxic elements in the water can be aerated (turned into mist) and inhaled by workers.
Rushing water can knock down power lines, which may still be live when submerged. Other electrical devices like generators and batteries can cause surges, leading to shocks and potential death, depending on the severity of the injury.
Another issue to consider is if workers are using electrified devices in floodwaters. For example, crews may use electric saws to cut through trees and other materials to remove them from the water. If these machines get submerged by accident, they can cause significant shocks—water is a powerful conductor of electricity.
PPE for Electrical Hazards
When there is an increased chance of electrical injury (i.e., when using motorized devices), workers should wear electrically resistant materials, including gloves, eye protection, boots, and clothing such as coveralls.
Emergency crews can come into contact with serious diseases and viruses when working in floodwaters. The water can contain dead animals, biological waste, and other bodily fluids. If workers are exposed to these elements, they could get sick or contract a disease.
PPE for Biological Pathogens
Skin exposure usually doesn't affect individuals, meaning they probably won't get sick unless they have a cut. That said, skin exposure can lead to illness if a worker touches an infected surface and then rubs their eyes or nose.
If there is a heightened risk of pathogens in the area, crews should wear universal protection from bloodborne diseases, including masks, face shields, gloves, and eye protection. The amount of PPE depends on the amount of contamination present.
Slick and Slippery Surfaces
Once again, an inability to see what's in floodwaters can present a significant danger to emergency crews. Water can also create slick surfaces, meaning that falls are much more likely. A fall combined with sharp, jagged debris can create a dangerous and potentially deadly scenario.
PPE for Slick and Slippery Surfaces
Hard hats, eye protection, and slip-resistant boots are excellent options for workers in a flood zone. As with the other hazards, individuals should also wear gloves and thick clothing to help prevent cuts, scrapes, and other injuries.
Other Floodwater Hazards
While the CDC lists five common dangers of working in a flood zone, there are some other potential hazards to pay attention to, including:
- Animal Attacks- Water-based animals like alligators, snakes, and fish can be present during a flood. Land animals may also pose a threat as they can panic and lash out when a worker is nearby.
- Drowning- If floodwaters are deep enough and strong enough, workers can potentially get sucked underwater or knocked off balance and drown.
Safety Tips and Best Practices for Working in a Flooded Area
Before crews step into the water, they should be ready for any potential scenario. Here are the top safety tips for working in a flood zone:
- Use a Buddy System- Should someone get injured, he or she needs to be rushed out of the scene as quickly as possible. If workers are by themselves, it's much harder for them to get help. In addition to the buddy system, individuals should be able to contact other teams as necessary via radio or walkie-talkie.
- Test Water Depth When Unsure- Depending on the situation, floodwaters can easily be deep enough to swallow entire people. As crews move into an area, they should test water depth whenever necessary. Otherwise, one wrong step could send someone underwater, making any potential hazards more dangerous.
- Have Sufficient Lighting- Crews should never work in floodwaters at night unless absolutely necessary. That said, individuals will still need lights when working in flooded buildings to help them see better. A lack of visibility can lead to injuries as it's harder to know what is beneath the surface.
- Work Slowly- The risk of sharp, jagged debris is always present, particularly when working in flowing water. Crews should work slowly and methodically, stepping carefully when moving to a new location.
- Have a Timer System- As we mentioned, prolonged exposure to floodwater can lead to heat stress or hypothermia. Individuals should stay out of the water as much as possible (i.e., in a boat or other watercraft). When workers have to stand in floodwaters, they should be timed to ensure that they're not exposed for too long.
- Have Drying Materials Handy- Heat stress or hypothermia don't only occur to those in the water. Wet clothes can still cause problems, so crews should have dry clothing and towels ready to go at all times. These materials are helpful for both the workers and any civilians who may need assistance.
Get Your PPE from International Enviroguard
Before workers head into a disaster zone, they need the right equipment. International Enviroguard has all the necessary PPE to protect against pathogens, chemicals, and electrical dangers. Our disposable PPE is durable and affordable so that you can keep your workers protected when disaster strikes.