Emergency Preparedness and Response

When the Next Storm Strikes, Will You Be Ready?

An alert pops up on your computer or phone: “Area Flood Warning.” The National Weather Service has predicted heavy, sustained rainfall for your area. Are you ready?

Safety in a heavy rain storm

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The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30 and peaks between August and October, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Hurricane Center. The Eastern Pacific hurricane season runs from May 15 to November 30. The U.S. East Coast also faces the threat of powerful winter Nor’easters from September to April.

Hurricanes can be devastating to coastal businesses and communities but can also move inland. Hurricane Barry, a Category 1 hurricane, made landfall July 13 and caused flash flooding in Louisiana and Arkansas, NOAA reported.

Do you have emergency action and evacuation plans? Do you have procedures for recovering from storm damage?

When a storm hits, your security staff may need to perform some search-and-rescue tasks before emergency responders arrive. In the immediate aftermath of a flood or hurricane, most recovery and cleanup activities are contracted out. However, at smaller companies, the facilities staff may perform some cleanup tasks. Do you have a plan for that?

Emergency Action, Evacuation Plans

Don’t take an “it can’t happen here” attitude. “100-year floods” happen with increasing regularity. Assess your company’s vulnerabilities in the event of areal or flash flooding and hurricanes. Before a storm hits your area, consult with local government officials, fire departments, and your insurance provider.
Decide before a disaster how you would handle:

  • Customer or personnel casualties;
  • Damage to your facility’s infrastructure;
  • Damage to equipment and inventory;
  • Disruption of work; and
  • Loss of vital documents or records.

You should have an evacuation plan in place to ensure workers can get to safety in case of a flood or hurricane. You also should familiarize yourself with the warning terms used for hurricanes—hurricane/tropical storm “watches” mean a hurricane or tropical storm is possible in your area, and hurricane/tropical storm “warnings” mean a hurricane or tropical storm is expected to reach your area, usually within 24 hours.

You also should familiarize yourself with your local community’s emergency plans and designated shelters, as well as any warning alarms, sirens, or other signals used in your area.

Essential elements of an evacuation plan include:

  • Conditions that would activate the plan;
  • A chain of command and designated emergency functions, including who will perform them, with a list of names, titles, departments, and telephone numbers of employees who can be contacted for additional information or explanations of employee duties under the plan;
  • Procedures for employees who must remain to operate critical plant operations;
  • Evacuation procedures with designated exits and routes, as well as procedures for evacuating disabled personnel;
  • Procedures for accounting for personnel, customers, and visitors; and
  • Equipment for company personnel to secure the workplace.

You should stockpile emergency supplies if your emergency action plan includes having any workers “shelter in place.” Being prepared to shelter in place means having enough food, water, and other supplies for each worker to last at least 72 hours.

The American Red Cross and Federal Emergency Management Agency have recommended supply lists, but a basic disaster kit includes:

  • One gallon of water per person per day for at least 3 days for drinking and sanitation;
  • A 3-day supply of nonperishable food and a manual can opener for canned food;
  • A battery-powered or hand-crank radio, such as a NOAA Weather Radio with tone alert, as well as a mobile phone with chargers and a backup battery;
  • A flashlight and extra batteries;
  • A first-aid kit;
  • Dust masks to filter contaminated air, as well as plastic sheeting and duct tape;
  • Moist towelettes, garbage bags, and plastic ties for personal sanitation; and
  • A wrench or pliers to turn off utilities.

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Search and Rescue

Emergency responders and rescue workers may be involved in victim rescue or body recovery, as well as providing emergency medical services.

Hazards for emergency responders and rescue workers may include exposure to asbestos or crystalline silica in damaged buildings; blood or other bodily fluids; sharp objects or jagged materials; slip, trip, and fall hazards; or even a potential for the collapse of unstable structures.

Eye, hand, foot, hearing, fall, and respiratory protection are all appropriate measures. If cement dust or crystalline silica is present, full-face respirators with P-100 organic vapor/acid gas combination cartridges may be appropriate protection from airborne contaminants that can cause eye irritation.

Recovery and Cleanup

Recovery and cleanup after a flood or hurricane can present hazards that include carbon monoxide exposure from gasoline-powered generators; confined spaces; contaminated floodwaters; downed trees and power lines; equipment and vehicles; falls; heat stress from wearing protective clothing and working in hot, humid conditions; structural debris; and working with heavy equipment, such as cranes, bucket trucks, and skid-steer loaders.

Protective measures for posthurricane recovery and cleanup efforts include:

  • Assuming floodwater is contaminated unless proven otherwise and ensuring workers are up to date on their tetanus boosters (within the past 10 years) and using waterproof boots, latex or rubber gloves, and other protective clothing;
  • Ensuring workers have and use all necessary personal protective equipment (PPE), especially, N-95 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)-approved disposable respirators for workers handling mold-contaminated materials;
  • Assuming all power lines are live or energized, establishing a danger zone around downed lines—at least 10 feet—and only allowing properly trained and equipped workers to repair electrical wires;
  • Following standard procedures for confined-space entry, excavation and trenching, fall-arrest systems, and ladder or scaffold use;
  • Strictly following all work zone safety procedures to protect workers from vehicles—the use of high-visibility clothing; proper traffic controls; and lighting, flaggers, and worksite communications;
  • Never running a generator inside a building and shutting down the generator before refueling; and
  • Using mechanical equipment to move heavy trees or limbs and ensuring that workers clearing downed trees use work gloves, a hard hat, work boots, hearing protection, and eye/face protection and that any workers operating chain saws wear protective chaps.

Flooding can dislodge chemicals previously stored aboveground, disrupt water treatment and sewage disposal systems, and cause overflowing of toxic waste sites. Floodwaters can be contaminated with fecal matter. Floodwater often contains infectious organisms, including intestinal bacteria such as E. coli, Salmonella, and Shigella; the Hepatitis A virus; and typhoid, paratyphoid, and tetanus germs.

Those working in contaminated floodwaters should have hand protection. If possible, they should wear a combination of two gloves: an inner cut-resistant glove (nitrile or a similar washable material) and an outer nitrile or latex disposable glove—preferably gloves with a thickness of between 4 to 8 millimeters.

Proper hygiene and sanitation are essential in addition to PPE to minimize the spread of contaminants and disease. Hand-washing is a critical component of good hygiene. If hand-washing is not practical, workers should be provided with hand sanitizer.

You can provide workers with alcohol-based products:

  • A solution of 70 percent rubbing (isopropyl) alcohol (about 3 quarts rubbing alcohol to 1 quart water);
  • Sprayer to cover all skin surfaces well, including wrists, palms, backs of hands, fingers, and under fingernails; then
  • Instruct workers to rub gently and allow hands to air dry.

The Association for Professionals in Infection Control suggests using a towelette to cleanse the hands and then an alcohol gel to thoroughly disinfect.

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Fungi, Mold Exposure

Flood conditions also promote fungal growth. Cleanup workers may be exposed to airborne fungi and their spores from handling decaying vegetable matter, moldy building materials, rotting waste material, or other contaminated debris.

Precautions for fungi and mold exposure include:

  • Articles visibly contaminated with mold should be discarded, and workers should consider discarding all water-damaged materials—when in doubt, throw it out;
  • Avoid breathing dust, which may contain fungal spores generated by moldy building materials, crops, and other materials;
  • Remove building materials and furnishings that are wet and may become contaminated with mold, placing them in sealed, impermeable bags or closed containers;
  • Large items with heavy mold growth should be covered with polyethylene sheeting and sealed with duct tape before being removed from the area to be disposed of as construction waste;
  • Clean and disinfect nonporous surfaces with detergents, chlorine-generating slimicides, or other biocides, and ensure that cleaners have been thoroughly removed before turning on air-handling units; and
  • Use an N-95 NIOSH-approved disposable respirator when working with moldy or damp building materials, compost, grain, or hay.

Insects, Rats, Snakes

You may be more likely to see stray or wild animals during or immediately after flooding. Avoid contact with fire ants, rodents, and snakes. Have your cleanup personnel take the following precautions:

  • Watch where you place your hands and feet when removing debris, and don’t place your fingers under debris;
  • Wear boots at least 10 inches high and gloves, long pants, and long-sleeved shirts;
  • If you or your workers see a snake, step back and let it proceed; watch for snakes sunning on fallen trees, limbs, and other debris;
  • A snake’s striking distance is half its total length; and
  • If bitten, workers should note the color and shape of the snake’s head to aid with treatment.

Responder Health Monitoring

Emergency responders face many risks during response, recovery, and cleanup, including hazardous substances, respiratory hazards, and wild animals. Emergency response agencies and occupational health professionals have learned much from the responses to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; Hurricane Katrina in 2005; and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. NIOSH collaborated on developing a framework to track and monitor emergency response workers.

The Emergency Responder Health Monitoring and Surveillance™ (ERHMS) framework was developed by NIOSH and the U.S. National Response Team, along with other federal agencies, state departments of health, labor unions, and volunteer emergency response groups. The framework covers a series of predeployment, deployment, and postdeployment activities.

Monitoring and surveillance begins with predeployment registration and credentialing. NIOSH recommends medical screening before workers are dispatched to respond to or clean up after floods or hurricanes. Screening can assess workers’ ability to use PPE, as well as their immunization status.

Rosters or logs of responders are kept during deployment. Responders then are tracked and their health monitored after emergency events.

The framework can be applied to large-scale, regional, or national responses and to more localized events.