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Flood Clean Up - Beware of the Dangers and Safety Hazards

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Most home owners, and even builders or subcontractors for that matter, wouldn’t normally encounter the rare set of health and safety hazards that can be a result of natural disasters and flood clean up.

With the recent floods in Queensland and Northern NSW created from Cyclone Debbie in March, this article provides a guide on the areas to look out for to make sure you, your friends, and your family are safe when commencing a flood clean up process following natural disasters like the cyclone.

Flood and storm water can create structural, electrical, biological and toxic hazards that will require addressing throughout the rectification work.


Protect the Safety of Those Around You

There are a number of workplace health and safety issues that should be considered during the pre-refurbishment clean-up and preparation. We have created the following checklist to assist you, and make you aware of the risks and danger involved in the clean up process.

General concerns

  • Workers should never work alone due to the elevated risk in flood and natural disaster affected areas.
  • Reliance on the local water supply, due to contamination, may not be acceptable in many flood affected areas. All workers should be provided with an adequate supply of clean, potable drinking water and antiseptic hand cleanser when involved in flood clean up work or on sites in flood affected areas.
  • Avoid direct contact with the flood water, as it may have been contaminated with either toxic or biological hazards. Appropriate personal protective equipment must be provided for all workers. Water impervious gloves, boots and clothing will be required initially however, personal protective equipment required may vary between work sites and during different stages of rectification work.
  • Before commencing work, all workers should be be inducted and briefed on all relevant safety considerations.

Specific concerns

The various activities that may need to be undertaken in a post-natural disaster or flood clean up, as well as the associated risks and recommended precautions for these activities, is outlined in the following information.

Snake Bite Risk

Risk Management - De-watering

Risk: Electrocution / Explosion

  • Before entering a disaster or flood affected area isolate all hazardous services (electricity / gas).
  • Isolation confirmation should be conducted with your energy provider or a licensed electrical contractor and/or gas authority.
  • Isolate the supply at the regulator for bottled gas and check for leaks
  • Check that solar power is also isolated if applicable

Risk: Structural Collapse

  • Do not enter areas that have obvious structural damage.
  • Engage a structural engineer to provide advice and inspect the structure or building, if in doubt.

Risk: Crush/Entrapment

  • Contain or remove large floating items from movement

Risk: Exposure to hazardous substances, toxins and bacteria

  • Before commencing de-watering inspect for floating or partially submerged containers that may contain flammable, toxic or hazardous substances.
  • Appropriate personal protective equipment should be worn including water or chemical impervious gloves, masks/respirators, safety glasses and rubber boots.
  • Antiseptic hand cleanser is to be provided and used.
  • All lacerations should be treated and disinfected immediately. Deeper cuts and lacerations should receive medical attention immediately.
  • Skin/body contact with flood water, sludge, mud, sewerage and flood affected debris is to be avoided.

Risk: Drowning

  • Consider the provision of life jackets, pontoons and boats for deeper flooded areas, and do not commence flood clean up in areas where the water is still rising or moving..
  • Availability of trained first aiders with current CPR certificates must be provided.
  • When walking through flooded areas workers are to be advised of uncovered pits. Submerged pits and manholes are likely to have become dislodged from flood water.
  • Job specific work method statements and procedures are to be documented.

Risk: Snake bite

  • Inspect the work area for snakes. Do not enter work area and call a trained handler for removal if a snake/snakes are present.
  • Appropriate first-aid is to be provided.
  • A qualified first aider must be present.

Post Flood Clean Up

Risk Management – General Clean Up

Risk: Lacerations, cuts from hidden sharp objects

  • Excavators and mechanical equipment should be used to remove mud, sludge and flood affected debris wherever possible.
  • For smaller clean up jobs shovels, brooms and wheel barrows should be used supported by a good quality pressure washer.
  • Lacerations, puncture wounds, cuts and serious infection can be minimised by avoiding lifting debris by hand where possible.

Risk: Disease and infection

  • Minimise contact with contaminated water and airborne bacteria by using gloves, masks, rubber boots, long sleeved shirts and trousers and safety goggles.
  • All cuts and lacerations should be treated and disinfected immediately.
  • All open wounds and sores should be covered.
  • Any perishable waste and food should be removed and disposed of to prevent the spread of vermin, risk of disease, infection and the build up of harmful bacteria.
  • Airborne mould spores can cause serious illness and even death for those people who suffer from allergies, lung dysfunction and respiratory diseases. Susceptible workers should not be engaged for this type of work. Mould should be removed with a diluted bleach-based solution and those actually performing the work should be provided with the approved personal protective equipment including masks/respirators and mechanical ventilation where required.
  • Workers should consider being vaccinated against tetanus and hepatitis before commencing clean-up work.
  • A bucket and sponge or mop should be used to disinfect all surfaces.

Risk: Lead exposure

  • Workers must wear the appropriate personal protective equipment when removing or working around lead. Gloves, respirators and safety glasses must be used to minimise skin contact and the risk of inhalation of lead particles. Lead paint may be present in older flood-affected homes. Power tools that generate dust or high pressure cleaners that penetrate or remove paint should not be used to clean in this instance. Dust must be minimised and capture of the lead paint residue must be done with a drop sheet or similar if it is necessary to remove mud from a flaking lead painted surface.

Risk: Hazardous substances exposure

  • When handling leaking containers or those with labels removed, personal protective equipment must be worn.
  • All hazardous substances are to be separated from general waste and disposed of at an approved facility.
  • Where necessary, air monitoring should be conducted to ensure that workers are not exposed to toxic gases and fumes.

Risk: Electrocution, toxic fumes and explosion

  • Prior to re-use, electrical appliances and equipment damaged by flood should be either inspected by a licensed electrician or discarded.
  • Even when the electricity to the building has been disconnected, solar panels should be treated with caution as they will not be isolated. Before entering the building or accessing the roof, engage an electrical contractor to make the panels safe where solar panels are present around water.
  • Use battery, fuel or air-powered tools and equipment around water wherever possible. Power tools with power supplied by mains or generator should not be used adjacent or above water. Mechanical ventilation and/or air monitoring may be necessary when using fuel powered plant in enclosed areas.
  • Prior to recommissioning and use of electrical and gas installations, you should ensure that an electrical contractor has inspected and certified them as safe, once the flood waters have dissipated.


Risk Management – Asbestos removal and cleaning

Risk: Asbestos fibres exposure (damaged asbestos cement sheets)

  • Unless AC sheeting has been visibly damaged, do not remove it. Unlike modern plasterboard, most AC sheeting will withstand immersion in water without any damage.
  • If the building is built prior to 1990 it is possible that any fibrous cement type wall and ceiling sheets will contain asbestos. Verify the age of the building. If built prior to the early to mid 1980’s you can be almost certain that these sheets will contain asbestos.
  • Prior to sanding on the roof area, asbestos sheets should be checked for fragility.
  • If removing 10m2 or more of bonded asbestos, ensure contractors and their workers have a Class B Asbestos Removal Licence.
  • Vacate the area and engage a specialist asbestos removal contractor with a ‘A’ class certificate if the area contains friable asbestos.
  • Prior to removal barricade and clear the area.
  • For those involved in the removal process, ensure P1 or P2 class dust masks are used.
  • Any contaminated clothing must be disposed of once the work has been completed, disposable overalls should be worn. Do not launder any contaminated clothing.
  • Wet the asbestos sheets to be removed prior to removing them.
  • Minimise breakage by taking all necessary precautions. Punch around the nail heads and try and remove the sheets in tact.
  • Sheets should be wrapped in heavy duty plastic and all joins taped to encapsulate the asbestos fibres.
  • Use approved industrial grade vacuum cleaners fitted with a HEPA filter and wipe reside with a wet rag to decontaminate the asbestos removal area.
  • Any exposed timber should be sealed using a PVA compound.
  • Any tools used in the removal process should be decontaminated and disposable items disposed of in the appropriate manner.
  • Any broken pieces, contaminated equipment including masks, clothing, and any asbestos residue is to be double bagged using heavy duty plastic, separated from general waste and labelled for specialist removal.
  • Note that pressure washers should not be used for the flood clean up of Asbestos materials.

Risk: Asbestos fibres exposure – flooring and vinyl tiles

  • A licensed asbestos removalist should be engaged to undertake the work if the floor coverings cannot be removed without breakage or the quantity of the materials exceeds 10m2. It is difficult to remove without releasing asbestos fibres and old vinyl flooring and tiles will more than likely contain asbestos.
  • Asbestos waste procedures should be followed in the disposal and decontamination of asbestos.

Risk: Asbestos fibres exposure – cement roofs and wall linings cleaning

  • Diluted bleach and then hosing to remove mud, mould, mildew and algae on asbestos roof sheets is the best method. For this purpose, high-pressure water cleaners should not be used.
  • Asbestos wall and ceiling sheets that are mud stained should be bleached and hand washed using a bucket, sponge or rags and a hose.

Suggested equipment for the flood clean up process

Before commencing the disaster or flood clean up process, make sure you have the right equipment to complete the job as efficiently as possible. The quicker the clean up can be completed, the less exposure you have to the risks listed above.

Make sure that you and everyone involved in the flood clean up process has access to proper protective equipment as outlined above, as well as first aid equipment. Consider having a list of phone numbers in advance for contacts of professionals who can deal with and advise on electrical, gas, structural, asbestos and other risk issues.

You should consider using battery operated power tools, a high pressure cleaner, an industrial vacuum cleaner, a commercial floor scrubber, and an industrial space heater to help dry everything out.

For help with choosing the correct piece of equipment of the job contact Spitwater Industrial Cleaning and Heating Equipment on 1800 172 005.


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