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Harvey recovery likely to cause workplace safety risks

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Recovering from Tropical Storm Harvey will be a dangerous process and can present multiple safety hazards to workers, according to experts.

One of the biggest workplace safety risks will be employees completing unfamiliar tasks in the process of recovering from the storm, which made landfall on the Texas Gulf coast as a Category 4 hurricane.

“You have all kinds of different hazards that recovery and response workers face,” said Jordan Barab, Washington D.C.-based former deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “You have people working on the roof of houses, you have people working in the contaminated water, you’ve got confined spaces, you have people trying to deal with electrical outages, you have people trying to deal with fallen trees, heavy machinery. There is an uncountable number of hazard that can affect workers.”

The most immediate workers compensation implication will be workers who are injured helping to fix damage caused by the storm, according to experts.  

“There probably will be an uptick of injury-related claims that are part of employees doing things in relation to the hurricane,” said Matthew Deffebach, Houston-based partner and head of the labor and employment practice group at law firm Haynes and Boone L.L.P.

Worker safety risks may arise when employees are asked to perform tasks that are outside the scope of their job description, experts say.  

“They are going to be asked to help with cleanup, they are going to be asked to help with ... things that they haven’t done in the past,” said Christine Sullivan, Denver-based senior control services manager at Lockton Cos. L.L.C. and vice president of finance for the American Society of Safety Engineers. “That is going to be a huge piece, the safety of employees doing nontraditional jobs. They must make sure that they are aware of the safety exposures ... this is a thousand-year event, something that hasn't been anticipated by a lot of employers, so there may not be something in place. They must look at what’s going on with ... the down power lines, are the utilities turned off, is the building structurally sound?

“I think the biggest exposure is the flood water — we don’t know what’s in that water,” she continued. “Making sure they are wearing things like waterproof waders, gloves, some type of respirators if necessary is important. Using bug screen, sunscreen, staying hydrated and being on the lookout for heat exhaustion. If you have people who are used to working in an office environment that are now being asked to help with cleanup, they are not going to be used to working outside in the heat.”

Employers need to know how to protect their workers in the wake of a natural disaster like Hurricane Harvey, experts say.

“Whether it’s a disaster or just a normal work day, employers have a responsibility to provide a safe workplace for their employees. That means if they have an employee on top of the roof they have to provide fall protection, if they have employees who may be in the position of hauling toxic materials they have to make sure that they have respiratory protection, they have to make sure that the people working on the electrical issues are trained and equipped to do that,” said Mr. Barab.

There may be a potential safety concern with the recruitment of day laborers and other temporary workers who may be enlisted by companies into the Harvey recovery process.

“There are going to be a lot of day laborers and people working on these projects to recover. A lot of them are not going to have the training or equipment that they are going to need to perform the job safely,” said Mr. Barab.

Since Texas gives employers the option to opt out of providing workers comp coverage, there could also be liability issues for employers.

“Typically, the Texas non-subscriber plans will specify that the injury occur in the course and scope of employment, much like statutory workers comp programs,” said Lee Brading, Dallas-based vice president, senior claims consultant, at Lockton Cos. L.L.C. “Where the plans differ, however, is the liability that could be placed upon the employer if they were to place the employee into an unfamiliar work area without adequate measures for their safety. During the cleanup effort, there will be employees lifting that don’t normally lift, using equipment they don’t normally use, and encountering moisture and debris that is usually not present. I think there is definitely potential to have more (liability) incidents than usual, but the same can be said for workers comp. If you do have people working outside their normal scope, having a clear and consistent safety message is critical to limit liability exposure.”