The damage inflicted by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria is immense and the hazards construction workers may face during cleanup efforts are numerous. It’s important for both employers and workers to be aware of these risks and plan accordingly.
“The damage left behind by these storms is on a scale beyond normal construction and cleanup projects,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “Cleanup work brings physical and health hazards and can also take a mental toll as workers put in long hours in a difficult situation. Fortunately, steps can be taken to control many of these hazards and LIUNA members have never backed down at the prospect of hard work or lending a helping hand.”
If you are returning home, organizing cleanup efforts or hired to help, here are some of the major threats and the measures employers and workers can take to mitigate them. While most homeowners will have intermittent contact with contaminated materials, recovery workers may be in constant contact for eight to 12 hours a day. All workers should have an up-to-date tetanus shot before any cleanup project begins. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends adults get a tetanus booster every 10 years.
Contaminated Flood Water
Standing water after a flood is often contaminated with sewage that can contain infectious bacteria like E.coli, Salmonella and the hepatitis A virus. It can also harbor toxic chemicals that can cause headaches and skin rashes. Concealed sharp objects can also be a problem. Appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and good hygiene can help keep workers safe. These include:
- Electrically insulated, waterproof boots with a steel shank, toe and insole
- Heavy, waterproof, cut-resistant work gloves
- Goggles or safety glasses with side shields or full-face shields
- Washing hands with soap or disinfected water after participating in cleanup activities and before eating
- Immediately cleaning any wounds or cuts with soap and water followed by antibiotic ointment. If the wound shows any sign of infection, seek medical attention.
Extensive water damage after a hurricane can cause mold to develop on walls, floors, furniture and carpets within 24 hours. Exposure to mold can be especially dangerous for people with asthma and other respiratory issues. It can also cause shortness of breath, flu-like symptoms, skin infections and other health problems. Occupants and cleanup workers are at increased risk for exposure to mold. Protective measures include:
- Ventilating enclosed areas with fresh air
- Isolating the work area
- Using NIOSH-approved N-95 disposable respirators
- Wearing eye protection
- Wearing gloves
Downed power lines and energized lines and objects are common hazards after a hurricane, creating risk for burns and electrocutions. Even just a puddle of water can conduct electricity. When wet, materials like wood and cloth can also conduct electricity. To reduce risk for burns and electrocution, workers should:
- Assume all power lines are live
- Not touch water or any object near downed power lines
- Mark a danger zone around downed power lines
- Stay at least 10 feet away
- Contact the utility company to de-energize power lines
- Wear an American National Standards Institute (ANSI) rated hardhat if there is danger of electrical hazards or falling debris
Insects and Other Animals
Communities battered by Harvey and Irma were already ranked as havens for mosquitoes as was Puerto Rico even before Maria made landfall. All will now have even more of the insects to deal with. This means increased risk for West Nile Virus, Zika and other mosquito-borne illnesses in the weeks and months to come. To protect against mosquitoes, workers and residents should:
- Cover as much skin as possible by wearing shirts with long-sleeves, long pants and socks (wear lightweight clothing to reduce risk for heat-induced illnesses)
- Avoid perfumes and colognes when working outdoors
- Use insect repellent containing an EPA-registered active ingredient
Fire ants are aggressive and will bite and sting. To escape floodwaters, this invasive species will link together to form a floating ant colony. Fire ants are not deterred by insect repellent. To protect against fire ants, workers involved in cleanup should:
- Wear socks
- If possible, do not disturb a fire ant colony
Hurricanes can displace other wildlife such as snakes and alligators or household pets. Avoid contact with any animals during cleanup efforts. Call your local Animal Control center for assistance.
Long workdays spent surrounded by destruction in communities that may be far from home can be extremely stressful for workers. To help them manage this stress, workers should be encouraged to:
- Watch out for each other and develop a buddy system
- Eat as healthily as possible
- Avoid using alcohol or drugs to cope
- Whenever possible, take breaks away from the work area
- See what mental health resources are available through their health and welfare fund
The LHSFNA’s Occupational Safety & Health Division can help LIUNA signatory contractors manage hazards on hurricane cleanup sites by offering guidance that can include site visits and a review of an employer’s safety and health program. The Division has also developed a number of materials that specifically focus on hurricane cleanup as well as its Mold and Fungi and Electrical Safety for Non-Electricians Health Alerts. For more information call 202-628-5465.
The Fund also has a variety of brochures and health alerts pertaining to stress management that can be of benefit to workers. You can order these materials through our online Publications Catalogue.
[Janet Lubman Rathner]