Tips for Safe Cleanup

By SHRM Online staff May 12, 2011

Members of the EHS (employee health and safety) Professionals LinkedIn group responded to a reporter’s request for tips for employers and workers who are cleaning up after a disaster. Here are their suggestions:

Sheila Howington, a nurse and workers' compensation professional, assisted in cleanup after Hurricane Katrina:

Wear masks and gloves that are puncture-resistant. The materials that become airborne can be harmful. Asbestos is prevalent in some old homes’ siding as well as in old schools. And don’t forget to listen to what victims are saying. Emotional support from the employer and co-workers can mean [a lot] to someone that has lost everything. No act of kindness is too small.

Mark Lovelace, safety manager for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Laredo, Texas:

One of the most important lessons we learned is to have high-ankle-support, puncture-resistant footwear available for the responders. The debris is unbelievable and can be deadly. Also consider heat injury: If the responders are in turnout gear or heavy coveralls doing heavy work, the heat stress can be very high. A written work-rest regimen is a great heat stress management tool.

Christopher Vallee, root-cause analysis system and training instructor:

  • Carry cash. Often there is no power and the ATMs are useless.
  • *Do not hook a gas-powered generator directly to the incoming power line source. Also, make sure that people are not putting generators in the house or attached garage.
  • If you are not familiar with using a chain saw to clear fallen trees ... cleaning up after the storm is not the time to learn by yourself.
  • Do not assume that fresh water or city water sources are drinkable.
  • Houses that stood through the storm may not be as strong as you think and should be inspected.
  • Have alternate [methods] for contact. Cell phones may not work or the service may be overloaded. Walky-talkies are a good alternative.

Howard Syvarth, hydrogeologist who assisted in Ground Zero recovery efforts:

One of the major problems that your workers will eventually develop is post-traumatic stress disorder. It is essential that you make provisions to ensure that their mental health issues are addressed. If any of the cleanup workers come across a casualty, it is best to deal with those issues sooner than later.

Paul Schnitz, employee health and safety consultant:

Cleanup workers should also be aware of biological hazards such as rotting garbage, raw sewage, and corpses of animals and, sadly, sometimes people.

Be wary of venomous snakes, as flood waters can drive them to higher ground and debris piles provide excellent cover they like. Household garbage and food often attract rodents, which in turn attract snakes.

Nests of bees and other stinging insects may be disturbed during the cleanup process. Workers with known allergies to these insects should carry an epinephrine (adrenaline) autoinjector at all times in case of stings and inform others on the crew of their allergies. Not all people with allergies to stinging insects are aware of their condition. It’s a good idea for each team to carry an emergency first-aid kit equipped with an autoinjector in case someone has an unexpected allergic reaction.

And speaking of first-aid kits, each team should have a basic kit on hand with sterile bandages and alcohol wipes or other means of initial wound cleaning.

Be cautious when approaching unfamiliar animals. After a disaster, even normally docile pets may be hungry, frightened, injured and/or confused and may bite or scratch without warning. Leave them to the care of people trained in animal handling.

Rescue workers should be instructed to not disturb containers of hazardous materials such as pesticides, insecticides, corrosives or other materials commonly found under kitchen sinks and in garages. Note their location and leave those for a suitably trained and equipped hazmat team to collect, segregate and dispose.

Danny Raines, Occupational Safety and Health Administration-authorized safety trainer and consultant:

OSHA Courses 5600 and 7600 have instructions for volunteers and employees involved in disaster recovery.


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