Hurricane Harvey brought catastrophic flooding to Texas and Louisiana last week, but it also brought heroic reactions from first responders and volunteers. As the flood waters recede, thousands of Americans are beginning the difficult work of cleanup and recovery.
If you’re cleaning up flood damage, check out our tips on staying safe. And remember: Most of these are general guidelines. But some operations – such as utility restoration, hazardous material cleanup, and search and rescue – should only be conducted by workers who have been properly trained.
Stay Out of Flood Waters
Even though it may be tempting to wade in flood waters, flooded areas may be deeper than they look, and water levels can rise unexpectedly. Flood waters can also contain dangerous debris that can cause cuts and puncture wounds. Water is sometimes also contaminated with chemicals and germs that can make people sick. Stay out of flood waters unless it is absolutely necessary to evacuate an area.
Avoid Electrical Hazards
Workers can expect to find standing water anywhere in a flood zone. If water has been present anywhere near electrical circuits and electrical equipment, turn off the power at the main breaker or fuse on the service panel. Never enter flooded areas or touch electrical equipment if the ground is wet. Assume any downed electrical lines are energized and don’t come within 10 feet of them. Repairing downed electrical lines is a task that should be left to trained utility workers.
Safely Remove Debris
Debris and downed trees can hide electrical lines, which carry a risk of electrocution. Falling tree limbs and improper use of chainsaws and wood chippers present additional hazards. Proceed with caution around debris, and use proper protective equipment when operating power tools. Slips, trips, and falls are other common hazards when clearing debris. Watch your step on slippery and uneven surfaces.
Gasoline- and diesel-powered generators, pumps, and pressure washers all release carbon monoxide, a deadly, odorless gas. Only operate these machines outdoors and never inside confined spaces. Mold– which can cause respiratory illness, eye irritation, and skin rash – often appears after flooding. You can clean items with detergent and water, and disinfect cleaned surfaces with 0.25 cups of household bleach in one gallon of water for light contamination, and up to 1.5 cups of bleach per gallon of water for heavier contamination. Do not mix bleach with other cleaning products that contain ammonia.
Keep Your Cool
Heavy labor and low water intake while conducting flood cleanup in high temperatures and humidity can lead to heat illness, exhaustion, and stroke. Drink plenty of water and take regular breaks in shaded or, if available, air-conditioned areas.
Avoid Wild Animals
Avoid contact with wild or stray animals. If contact is unavoidable, wear protective gloves and wash your hands regularly. Approach piles of debris with caution and if you see a snake, fire ants, or other creatures that could bite or sting, step away. Insect repellents and protective clothing – including long pants, socks, gloves, boots, and long-sleeved shirts – can provide extra protection. Seek immediate medical attention if you are bitten by a wild animal. Only trained workers should attempt to rescue stranded or injured animals.
Visit our hurricane recovery page for more tips on staying safe, and to learn more about how the U.S. Department of Labor is supporting communities affected by this storm.
Mandy Edens is the Director of OSHA’s Directorate of Technical Support and Emergency Management.