Keep Your Employees Safe During Disaster Cleanup

By Roy Maurer Nov 5, 2012

It’s been a week since Hurricane Sandy cut a swath of destruction hundreds of miles wide from the mid-Atlantic states to sou​thern New England. It killed more than 100 people in 10 states, knocked out power to 8.5 million homes and businesses, and was estimated to have caused $50 billion in damage.

As of Nov. 5, 2012, about 1.3 million homes and businesses in the Northeast are still without power as a cold front is forecast to bring rain and possibly snow to the affected areas later this week.

In the wake of Sandy, thousands of businesses face the challenge of cleaning up significant physical damage and resuming normal operations. According to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), storm and flood cleanup activities may present significant hazards to workers and volunteers. The health and safety of employees should be employers’ first priority, followed by the recovery of critical infrastructure services, OSHA said. Employers should be mindful of the unique safety concerns presented during and after a natural disaster when requesting that employees return to work.

“Recovery work should not put you in the recovery room,” said Robert Kulick, OSHA’s regional administrator in New York. “Storm recovery work involves a wide range of safety and health hazards, which can be minimized by knowledge, safe work practices and personal protective equipment,” he said in a media statement.

Assess Hazards First

Before embarking on a cleanup, employers should ensure that proper safety precautions are taken and that potential hazards are assessed thoroughly, OSHA said. Cleanup work can involve:

  • Restoring electricity, communications, water and sewer services.
  • Demolition activities.
  • Removal of floodwater from structures or entry into flooded areas.
  • Cleaning up debris and tree trimming.
  • Structural, roadway, bridge, dam and levee repair.
  • Hazardous waste operations.
  • Emergency response activities.

Hazards may include:

  • Illness from exposure to contaminated water or food or to severe weather.
  • Downed electrical wires.
  • Carbon monoxide and electrical hazards from portable generators.
  • Hazards from tree trimming or working at heights.
  • Drowning from being caught in moving water or while removing water from flooded structures.

OSHA wants employers to know that as the water begins to recede, employees often underestimate the hazards associated with flood waters that have been contaminated by chemical, pesticide, and petroleum runoff, sewage, and even human remains.

OSHA advises that employees be vigilant around portable generators, which can pose hazards ranging from carbon monoxide overexposure to backflow of electricity.

In addition, OSHA is concerned about employees facing retaliation should they complain about unsafe working conditions or exposure to hazards. Employees with reasonable concerns about employers putting them in imminent danger by demanding that they return to work during or after a natural disaster may file a complaint with OSHA and ask for whistle-blower protection.

OSHA expects both employers and employees to work together and use common sense in judging actual worksite conditions to determine if working conditions are unsafe or unhealthy.

Resources to Keep Workers Safe

SHRM’s Disaster Prep and Response Resource Page provides guidance on planning for business disruptions, policies to handle unexpected absences, and resources to help recover from natural and manmade disasters.

OSHA has published guidelines for specific work practices and dangers likely to be associated with cleanup and recovery.

Other resources include the following:

*A checklist of activities to be undertaken before, during and after a hurricane is available from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

*Useful, step-by-step guidance is found at OSHA’s Hurricane eMatrix site.

*Other materials may be accessed at OSHA’s Hurricane Response Page.

*The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Emergency Response page has practical and detailed guidance, especially involving cleanup after water damage.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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