Businesses along state Highway 74 near Dutchtown, Missouri, still sit idle as the owners wait for the floodwaters to recede so they can start cleanup operations following the historic flooding of lower lying counties along the Mississippi and Meramec rivers in late December through early January.
As 2015 came to a close and 2016 began, most of us got together with family and friends to celebrate the holidays and ring in a new year. But not everyone was able to enjoy a happy and healthy holiday season, as some communities across the Midwest were devastated by tornadoes and historic floods exacerbated by a strong El Niño. First responders, emergency managers, national guardsmen and volunteers from around the nation rallied together to help those in need. Right alongside them were local and regional Occupational Safety and Health Administration staff.
That’s because when communities experience extreme winter weather events, floods or tornadoes, many responders and volunteers may not know about the hazards involved in recovery. Unstable structures, downed electrical lines, fall hazards, hypothermia, mold and even raw sewage from overflowing sewer lines all present dangers.
Our trained and compassionate staff helps responders, rescuers and emergency managers recognize and mitigate hazards in disaster areas, select and use the right personal protective equipment and ensure proper precautions are followed. As rescue activities transform into recovery, day laborers and contractors are often brought in to fix roofs and other structures. We work closely with workers, employers and contractors to help with everything from cleanup and repairing damaged structures to restoring power and safely housing people displaced by the disaster. The last thing anyone wants is someone else to get hurt, sick or killed who is trying to help. We are there to help make sure that doesn’t happen.
Kevin Ludvik and Thomas Benz, compliance officers with the St Louis OSHA area office, visited with business owners and workers conducting cleanup operations at the Rivers Edge Auto Repair Shop in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. The flooding devastated businesses and residential homes, and took the lives of 24 people in Missouri and Illinois.
Take my colleagues Kevin Ludvik and Thomas Benz from OSHA’s St. Louis area office for one example. After the flooding of lower lying counties around the Mississippi and Meramec rivers over the holidays, Kevin and Thomas made contact with emergency management officials from the affected counties to coordinate and identify the best places to focus their outreach efforts. They then visited some of the hardest hit sites, helping workers identify hazards and how to mitigate them.
OSHA personnel are often some of the most experienced people on scene when it comes to these incidents. As most of these communities have never faced such damage, many responders there are seeing these conditions for the first time. Many OSHA staff members have seen other disasters – such as Super Storm Sandy or the tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri, in May 2011 – and bring years of experience to support the communities and help them stay safe during their recovery.
Businesses, municipalities and workers can find more information about preparing for disasters and working safely in disaster areas on OSHA’s website or by contacting their local OSHA offices. We wish the people of Missouri and the Midwest a safe and speedy recovery, and our trained personnel stand ready to assist any community that may need us in the future.
Mandy Edens is the director of OSHA’s Directorate of Technical Support and Emergency Management. Photos by Scott Allen, the regional director of public affairs for the Labor Department in Chicago.