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- Cleanup workers should wear waterproof and chemical-resistant PPE when coming in contact with floodwater to reduce the risk of exposure to harmful bacteria or chemicals.
- Storm-damaged structures may contain debris and unstable surfaces, requiring durable, cut-resistant gloves and footwear in addition to other PPE.
- Mold growth is common in buildings following flooding, so cleanup workers should use appropriate NIOSH-approved respirators based on the amount of growth and other specific needs of the jobsite.
Hurricane Katrina in 2005, torrential rains in Tennessee in 2010, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 ... each event severely damaged hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses. Some of the most serious damage resulted from flooding by the storms, which created hazardous, unstable conditions not only for residents but also for the cleanup and restoration workers tasked with returning the affected areas to safe, functional order.
To help protect cleanup workers, OSHA requires employers to determine what hazards are present at each jobsite and how to control them. In many cases, personal protective equipment may be the best - or only - way to help protect against floodwater-related hazards such as bacteria, dangerous airborne spores, debris and electrical hazards.
"Working on contaminated structures devastated by an untimely event is far from 'pleasant,'" said Ken Larsen, director of education for the International Dry Standard Organization and for the Restoration Leadership Institute, both based in Aledo, TX. "There are risks involved - and the least we can do is respect the workers on the job enough to mandate and enable them to perform the necessary services safely."
Contaminated water hazards
"I'd say that water is the most destructive force out there. Water can introduce probably more unsafe and unstable situations than I can imagine," said Dave Robbins, partner at Bartlett, TN-based Sharp & Robbins Construction LLC, which provides building restoration and renovation services. "The things that are probably the most concerning are the toxic bacteria you have to deal with."
According to OSHA, sewage-contaminated floodwater can contain infectious bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella. To reduce the risk of coming into contact with contaminated floodwater, OSHA recommends workers wear waterproof boots with a steel toe and insole, an impervious body suit, hoods, latex or rubber gloves, and safety goggles. All spots that separate PPE on a worker's body should be as watertight as possible. Workers also should regularly check their PPE for holes or tears, Robbins said.
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. Workers may need to wear waterproof chemical-resistant suits to decrease their risk of skin contact. To help reduce the spread of contaminants, workers must thoroughly clean their PPE before moving to a non-contaminated area, or use disposable versions of the PPE.
Airborne inhalation hazards
Mold is a dangerous hazard when working in a flood-?damaged building, said Nick Gromicko, founder of the Boulder, CO-based International Association of Certified Home Inspectors. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, mold - which can grow on nearly any building material - thrives in moist conditions with low levels of light. Mold spores that are inhaled or land on skin can cause allergic reactions; infections; or eye, nasal and skin irritation. Flood-damaged buildings attract mold that, unless addressed, will continue to grow, Gromicko said.
OSHA outlines the various types of PPE that workers should use when remediating mold:
- Use non-vented goggles, long and chemical-resistant gloves for surface cleaning, and disposable protective clothing such as coveralls.
- Charcoal-impregnated filters may be used to control odors.
- For areas smaller than 100 square feet, use at minimum a NIOSH-approved half- or full-face 95-rated N, R or P respirator.
- For areas greater than 100 square feet, where mold coverage is heavy, or in areas where substantial amounts of dust may be generated by cleaning or debris removal, use at minimum a NIOSH-approved half- or full-face 100-rated N, R or P respirator.
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 PPE such as disposable clothing to reduce the risk of spreading contamination.
A particularly challenging situation for remediation workers is confined spaces containing airborne hazards such as mold, Robbins said. Some PPE, including full-face respirators, protective clothing, rubber gloves and rubber boots, can exacerbate an unventilated confined space's temperature, which can be extreme based on the area's climate. Workers also must adhere to OSHA regulations on how long they can spend in a confined space based on the temperature. If appropriate for the confined space, a self-?contained breathing apparatus respirator is preferable in an oxygen-deficient environment, Robbins said.