Flood PPE

After the storm

Using PPE to help protect cleanup and restoration workers

July 1, 2013


  • 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.

Debris and work environment hazards

Damage from severe storms can cause building surfaces to warp, crack and become unstable. They also may be slippery. NIOSH recommends workers wear safety footwear with slip-resistant soles, as well as cut-resistant gloves and eye protection. In addition, the agency states that workers on unstable surfaces or piles of construction materials or debris should use fall protection equipment with lifelines tied off to ?appropriate anchor points, including bucket trucks, to reduce the risk of falls. Head protection such as ANSI-rated hard hats may be necessary in certain buildings, especially if falling debris or electrical hazards are present.

When working at flooding- or hurricane-damaged sites, NIOSH advises workers to wear multiple layers of gloves to reduce the risk of cuts or scrapes from debris, while also protecting against chemical or other exposures.

According to OSHA, a glove combination appropriate for areas with contaminated floodwater and debris is an inner cut-resistant glove made of nitrile or similar washable materials, with an outer nitrile or latex disposable glove, preferably one with a 4- to 8-millimeter thickness. Workers allergic to latex should use nitrile gloves.

Workers also may need to protect themselves from electrical hazards in a water-damaged building. Safety inspectors should check for flooded electrical circuits and frayed wires before allowing cleaners and restorers in the building, Gromicko recommends. If electrical hazards are present in a structure, workers should wear rubber or rubber-insulated boots, coveralls, and gloves.

Other PPE may be required depending on the jobsite. Noise-producing power generators may be brought in to operate water removal equipment (which also may produce loud noise). NIOSH states that if the environment is so loud that a worker must shout to be heard, hearing protection should be worn. If working in sunlight, goggles or safety glasses with sun- or glare-protective lenses may be needed. Also, if workers will be standing in deep water, they may need hip waders.

Encouraging PPE use and training

Workers should be trained in proper PPE use as well as their company's policies related to safe work practices, Larsen said. For safe and effective PPE programs, intelligence, common sense and pre-inspections are necessary for each project, he said. For instance, if workers will be physically removing debris as well as working with chemicals, they should bring multiple types of gloves.

Workers may be more likely to wear PPE at all times if they wear clothing underneath that is lightweight and form-fitting to increase comfort, according to NIOSH. Wet gloves or other PPE can cause dermal irritation, especially during long exposures, so NIOSH recommends workers use cotton liners under protective gloves.

Safety training should be tailored to workers to highlight the dangers they may face performing their work, Larsen said.

"Training should be given in a spirit of sincere interest in the welfare of the worker," he said. "Insincerity diminishes the workers' realization that the work they are performing brings serious risks to their well-being."

Recovery workers, PPE availability and delivery networks

During and after extreme weather events such as hurricanes, ensuring the correct personal protective equipment is used may not be the only challenge.

"PPE needs to be where it's needed, but you never know where that is until the event happens," said John Madden, president of the National Emergency Management Association and director of the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for Alaska. Local governments in particular face this challenge, Madden said, because typically they prepare only for the natural disasters likely to occur in their region - relying on delivery networks for PPE designed for a specific event.

However, local organizations must consider that typical networks and modes of transportation used to deliver the necessary PPE may be blocked by water, debris or other hazards during and after a disaster. Local responders faced this situation in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Some could not even rely on their stockpiles - many fire departments in the New York and New Jersey areas were devastated by the wind and flooding, losing a large amount of basic PPE as a result.

In extreme weather situations, emergency response workers may be eager to jump in to assist those in need, with or without wearing PPE. This tendency must be addressed beforehand, Madden cautioned. "There are always circumstances where public responders will put themselves at harm if they can serve the public and take those actions - it's part of the nobility of the profession," he said. Although responders may become frustrated, safety professionals and employers must remind these workers that if they cut corners on PPE to help one person and become injured, they will not be able to help the second, third or fourth person, Madden said.