Toxic water poses danger to recovery workers after catastrophes

First responders from Missouri City Fire Station 4 inspect flooded houses in Missouri City, Texas, after Hurricane Harvey./ SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

Contaminated water from natural disasters can present multiple safety hazards that employers should be aware of, including water full of toxins and bacteria, when it comes to protecting workers, experts say.
First responders usually have protective equipment and training, but employers should have a plan for nonemergency recovery workers who are a part of the cleanup and rebuilding efforts following these catastrophes, according to experts.
Several natural disasters took place this year affecting many cities in the U.S. and internationally.
“We just had Hurricane Harvey in Houston, and that affected the Texas and Louisiana coast and some of the areas that were further inland. Florida had Hurricane Maria…those are the major water-based disasters that we have encountered,” said David Lee, Houston-based risk control consultant at Lockton Cos. L.L.C.
The aftermath of these disasters includes hazardous water, experts say.
“In terms of the water you have … a whole chemical soup in the water, from tanks that have been flooded from chemical facilities, factories, gas stations, anything that might flood and release chemicals into the water. You also have all of the biological problems as well — sump pumps, wastewater treatment plants, dead animals,” said Jordan Barab, Washington-based former deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration under the Obama administration and publisher of the Confined Space safety and health newsletter. 
The increase in the population of insects and mold are also safety concerns, say experts.
“The one that we are really concerned about from an industrial hygiene standpoint in terms of flooding and water intrusion is the creation of mold,” said Mr. Lee. “The one that we are most concerned about is the black mold, and that’s the Stachybotrys species of mold … and of course everyone is concerned about the increase in the population of mosquitoes after a water-based natural disaster. One of the biggest threats to those working outdoors is West Nile virus,” said Mr. Lee.
In October, a 31-year old man died after being diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis, a bacterial infection that kills soft tissue. The man worked repairing homes damaged by Harvey flooding, and bacteria from debris or floodwater most likely entered his body through a wound or cut, the Galveston County Health District said in a statement.
While this man’s infection was rare, experts say that employers should be aware of saltwater bacteria, which can do soft-tissue harm.
Employers involved in recovery efforts need to have safety protocols in place to protect their workers, experts say.
“They need to be trained about the hazard in the water, they need to have personal protective equipment … they have to be able to clean themselves afterward. Those are all things that employers of recovery workers need to be aware of,” said Mr. Barab.
General advice is to have a safety plan in place that focuses on what to do in the aftermath of a storm, have an emergency response team that specifically trained to respond, have the right gear for this type of work and make sure that workers know how to use the gear properly.
Employers whose workers are directly involved with the recovery effort have the most at stake in terms of liability, said Matthew Deffebach, Houston-based partner and head of the labor and employment practice group at law firm Haynes and Boone L.L.P. This is “because it’s expected as part of the course and scope of the employee’s duties to go into an area that could potentially have a mixture of storm sewer and sewage systems flooding into the water,” he said.
“Most private-sector employees are not going to necessarily be working in contaminated waters unless they have a facility that flooded, or part of their private-sector job duties consist of remediation,” he said.

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