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Recovery workers face toxic water risks

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In the wake of several recent natural disasters in the United States and abroad, employers should be aware of contaminated water and the multiple safety hazards it can present to workers, experts say.

First responders usually have protective equipment and training, but employers should have a plan for nonemergency recovery workers who are a part of the cleanup and rebuilding efforts following these catastrophes, according to experts.

“We just had Hurricane Harvey in Houston and that affected the Texas and Louisiana coast and some of the areas that were further inland. Florida had Hurricane Maria... those are the major waterbased disasters that we have encountered,” said David Lee, Houston-based risk control consultant at Lockton Cos. L.L.C.

The aftermath of these disasters includes hazardous water, experts say.

“In terms of the water you have ... a whole chemical soup in the water, from tanks that have been flooded from chemical facilities, factories, gas stations, anything that might flood and release chemicals into the water. You also have all of the biological problems as well — sump pumps, wastewater treatment plants, dead animals,” said Jordan Barab, Washington-based former deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration under the Obama administration and publisher of the Con fined Space safety and health newsletter.

The increase in the population of insects and mold also presents safety concerns, say experts.

“The one that we are really concerned about from an industrial hygiene standpoint in terms of flooding and water intrusion is the creation of mold,” said Mr. Lee. “The one that we are most concerned about is the black mold, and that’s the Stachybotrys species of mold ... and of course everyone is concerned about the increase in the population of mosquitoes after a water-based natural disaster. One of the biggest threats to those working outdoors is West Nile virus.” 

In October, a 31-year old man died after being diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis, a bacterial infection that kills soft tissue. The man worked repairing homes damaged by Harvey flooding, and bacteria from debris or floodwater most likely entered his body through a wound or cut, the Galveston County Health District said in a statement.

While the man’s infection was rare, experts say that employers should be aware of saltwater bacteria, which can harm soft-tissue.

Employers involved in recovery efforts should have safety protocols in place to protect workers, experts say.

“They need to be trained about the hazard in the water, they need to have personal protective equipment ... they have to be able to clean themselves afterward,” said Mr. Barab.

General advice is to have a safety plan in place that focuses on what to do in the aftermath of a storm, have an emergency response team that is specifically trained to respond, have the right gear for the work and make sure that workers know how to use the gear properly.

Employers should conduct a job hazard assessment before sending workers to work in areas with waste water from natural disasters.

“You are going to have a lot of different factors to the work environment that were not there before, and you may be using employees who aren’t used to working in this environment,” said Adam R. Young, Chicago-based associate for OSHA compliance with the enforcement and litigation group at Seyfarth Shaw L.L.P. “They need to do a job hazard assessment by someone that is qualified. Go in and look around, if waste water is what we are concentrating on there may be items in that water such as debris and parts of the building that have flushed in there.” 

Employers should also be up to date on OSHA standards, according to experts.

OSHA has guidance “for when you are dealing with natural disasters. For personal protective equipment, they recommend using two gloves, for example, a latex glove followed by an outer layer glove. That is to prevent the biological pathogens,” said Mr. Young.

Employers whose workers are directly involved with recovery efforts have the most at stake in terms of liability, said Matthew Deffebach, Houston-based partner and head of the labor and employment practice group at law firm Haynes and Boone L.L.P. That’s “because it’s expected as part of the course and scope of the employee’s duties to go into an area that could potentially have a mixture of storm sewer and sewage systems flooding into the water,” he said.

“Most private-sector employees are not going to necessarily be working in contaminated waters unless they have a facility that flooded, or part of their private-sector job duties consist of remediation,” he said.