Hurricane Matthew hit the Atlantic Coast pretty hard last month, particularly the Carolinas and Florida. Estimated U.S. insured losses from Air Worldwide range from $2.2 billion to $6.8 billion. In some locations, Matthew’s winds were upward of 100 mph, storm surge reached 9 feet, and as much as 17 inches of rain was reported. In North Carolina alone, the hurricane dumped more than a foot of rain 100 miles inland, causing massive flooding in the eastern part of the state, with estimates of $1.5 billion in damage to 100,000 homes, businesses and government buildings. Moreover, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a warning to emergency county workers, employers and the public at large about the potentially serious hazards that come with storm cleanup, and urged “vigilance” while this work takes place throughout the weeks to come.
“Recovery work should not send you to the hospital emergency room," said Kurt Petermeyer, OSHA’s regional administrator for the Southeast in a statement. “A range of safety and health hazards exists following storms. You can minimize these dangers with knowledge, safe work practices and personal protective equipment. OSHA wants all working men and women – including volunteers – to stay safe once the storm has passed.”
Storm cleanup may involve hazards related to restoring electricity, communications, and water and sewer services. Demolition activities such as debris cleanup, tree trimming and structural, roadway and bridge repair, hazardous waste operations and emergency response activities present their own unique hazards, according to OSHA. For example, back in October 2012 after Super Storm Sandy hit the East Coast, there was tremendous concern about hazardous chemicals and other potential pollutants in the air, water, and ground. As cleanup crews sifted through the destruction to bring back neighborhoods and the businesses that comprise the fabric of the communities hit, they dealt with contaminated water. According to OSHA, sewage-contaminated floodwater can contain infectious bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella.
Moreover, depending on the location and severity of a weather event, floodwater may contain agricultural or industrial chemicals or pesticides. Harmful liquids, such as household cleaning products, gasoline and other flammable liquids, from inside or near homes also may contaminate water. In addition, flooding and severe storms also may stir up asbestos or other harmful airborne hazards, so cleanup and restoration workers may need to use additional or alternate protective personal equipment, such as disposable clothing and masks to reduce the risk of spreading contamination.
It’s important municipality workers are properly trained and adequately equipped when conducting cleanup activities. This includes, for example:
- Evaluating all work areas for hazards.
- Employing engineering or work practice controls to mitigate hazards.
- Allowing only trained workers with the proper personal protective equipment to clean up toxic chemicals, other hazardous waste, and mold. Be sure to use waterproof boots, latex or rubber gloves and other protective clothing. Consider using special chemical-resistant outer clothing and protective goggles.
- Using an N-95 NIOSH-approved disposable respirator, at a minimum, when handling mold-contaminated materials.
- Keeping an adequate supply of clean water available for drinking and washing.
- Assuming all power lines are live or energized.
- Using portable generators, saws, ladders, vehicles and other equipment properly.
- Heeding safety precautions for traffic work zones.
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