Cleaning Up After a Natural Disaster
Natural disasters are unpredictable and can have devastating effects on cities, homes and businesses. Following extraordinary situations such as hurricanes, tornadoes or earthquakes, small business owners may look to their employees to pitch in with clean-up and rebuilding efforts. As important as recovery efforts are to get the business up-and-running again, the all-hands-on-deck approach can expose small business owners and their employees to greater risk of injury, especially when performing tasks that are outside their normal scope of work or abilities. Even during extraordinary circumstances, it’s important to prioritize the safety and health of employees first.
In many cases, recovery efforts should be left to professionals. Standing contaminated water, downed power lines and extensively damaged materials are common after hurricanes, floods and earthquakes. Handling them may require training and protective equipment, such as hazmat gear.
Special precautions should be taken even for cleaning up minor damage. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides helpful information about identifying potential hazards and preventative steps to protect employees.
Common hazards that small business owners need to be aware of after natural disasters include:
- Refrain from asking workers to perform tasks they have not had the experience, physical ability or proper training to address, such as lifting heavy objects or operating a forklift or other types of machinery.
- Many people could experience respiratory illnesses from mold, chemicals or smoke that can be released during a natural disaster. Make sure to ventilate enclosed spaces that may have sustained water or smoke damage and wear OSHA-approved respirator masks whenever possible.
- Take caution when cleaning up areas where floor surfaces might be wet, slippery or uneven, as these conditions could lead to a slip, trip or fall, the most common workplace injuries.
- Practice proper ladder safety: twice as many falls occur stepping down from ladders as opposed to going up. Make sure to erect the ladder on firm, stable ground, and maintain “three-point” contact.
- Follow the manufacturer’s instructions when using portable generators. Additionally, make sure generators are properly ventilated to avoid potential electrical fires, shocks or electrocutions or carbon monoxide poisoning.
Although it may be tempting to enlist employees to help get the business operational again, it is critical to take precautions to avoid employee injuries or illnesses that could occur during clean-up. For more information on preparing for and recovering from a natural disaster, contact the Health Studies Branch of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), OSHA, or EMPLOYERS.