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After the Flood: Safety Tips for Business Owners

Tips from The Hartford - September 2007

Cleaning up a flood-ravaged business—one of the first steps toward recovery—can be a difficult and disheartening task. It can also be dangerous. Here is information to help you get started—safely. The information presented here is mostly in checklist format, and follows this general outline:

  • Take Immediate Steps to Ensure Personal Safety
  • Secure the Buildings and Utilities
  • Identify Damage and Begin Clean-Up of Building Contents
  • Decontaminate Buildings and Contents
  • Ensure Worker Safety During Clean-Up

Take Immediate Steps to Ensure Personal Safety

Before you can even enter your property to assess the damage and begin clean-up and repair, you must take steps to protect workers and volunteers who have come to help.

Before Entering A Flood-Damaged Building

  • Remember that buildings that have been submerged or have withstood rushing flood waters may have suffered structural damage and could be dangerous.
  • Before entering a building, check for structural damage. Do not go in if there is any chance that the building, or parts of it, may collapse. If you see damage, have a qualified person check the building before you enter.
  • Never assume that water-damaged structures or ground are stable.
  • Never assume that all stairs, floors, and roofs, and overhangs are safe until they are inspected.

When You Enter A Flood-Damaged Building

  • Once you are certain that the building is safe to enter, make sure the electricity is turned off at the meter or at the street before you enter. Determine that all electrical hazards are controlled.
  • Enter the building carefully. Leave immediately if shifting or unusual noises signal a possible collapse.
  • If the door sticks at the top, it could mean your ceiling is ready to fall. If you force the door open, wait outside the doorway in case debris falls.
  • Check the ceiling for signs of sagging. Wind, rain, or deep flooding may wet plaster or wallboard. It is very heavy, and will be dangerous if it falls.
  • Upon entering the building, do not use matches, cigarette lighters, or any other open flames, since gas may be trapped inside. Use an explosion-proof flashlight or chemical light stick to light your way.
  • If you suspect a gas leak or smell gas, of if you hear blowing or hissing, open a window and leave the building and premises immediately. Call the gas company from a different location. Do not re-enter the building.
  • Be aware of the possibility of electrical shock and the possibility of injuries caused by hidden sharp objects.
  • Look out for animals, especially snakes. Displaced animals may seek shelter in your building. Always seek the assistance of an animal control officer to remove unwanted animals.

Ensure Electrical Safety To Prevent Electrocution

  • Turn off the power at the main breaker or fuse on the service panel only if you can reach these without stepping in water; otherwise, have your utility company disconnect the power at the meter. Take this important step even if the power is off in your community to help ensure your safety in the event power is restored without notice.
  • Do not turn the power back on until electrical equipment has been inspected by a qualified electrician.
  • Shut off the water.
  • Never touch electrical equipment if the ground is wet.
  • Stay well away from downed power lines and electrical wires, and report these to the proper authorities. Electrocution is a major source of deaths in flooded areas. Electric current passes easily through water and soil. You can be electrocuted even if you only approach a downed power line.
  • Look for electrical system damage: sparks, broken or frayed wires, smell of burning insulation.
  • Do not energize equipment that is, or has been, wet until it has been properly dried, cleaned, repaired or restored, and inspected.

Take Steps To Prevent Fires

  • Shut off gas at the main valve, only if you are trained to do so; otherwise, have your gas company do this.
  • Inspect storage and piping systems containing flammable liquids; repair leaks or damage as soon as possible. Provide supports and anchors for damaged or floating tanks and piping.
  • Prohibit smoking.

Be Cautious About Hazardous Materials

Flood waters can dislodge tanks, drums, pipes, and equipment, which may contain hazardous materials such as pesticides, chemicals, or fuels.

  • Do not attempt to move unidentified dislodged containers without first contacting the local fire department or hazardous materials team.
  • If you are working in potentially contaminated areas, wear appropriate protective clothing and respirators.
  • Thoroughly wash all clothing and parts of your body that may have come in contact with sewage or other contaminants or with hazardous substances or chemicals. Use soap and clean, uncontaminated water. Use waterless sanitizers if uncontaminated water is not available.

Be Cautious About Contaminated Floodwaters

Floodwaters are often contaminated with biohazards (sewage, medical waste, animal waste and carcasses) or other hazardous materials (fuels, asbestos, farm chemicals, etc.). Flood-damaged buildings may also have damp areas where molds, mildews, and other organisms thrive.

  • Assume that anything touched by floodwater is contaminated.
  • If you must come in contact with flood waters or potentially contaminated locations or objects, always use appropriate personal protective equipment, including goggles, respirators, gloves, etc
  • Make sure that all workers have current tetanus shots.

Getting Around Safely

  • Emergency workers will be assisting people in flooded areas. You can help them by staying off the roads and out of the way. Keep listening to the radio for news about what to do, where to go, or places to avoid.
  • Roads may still be closed because they have been damaged or are covered by water. Floodwaters often erode roads and walkways. Barricades are placed for your protection. If you come upon a barricade or a flooded road, turn around and go another way. Don’t try to assess the depth of the water on a road. If the road is covered, don’t cross it. Don’t drive over low-water bridges.
  • If your vehicle stalls, get away from it and get to higher ground. A car will float in as little as two feet of water. More people drown in their cars than anywhere else.
  • Remember that standing water may be electrically charged from underground or downed power lines.
  • Be careful walking around. Flooding may have caused familiar places to change, and steps and floors are often slippery with mud.
  • Do not walk through flooded areas. As little as six inches of moving water can knock you off your feet.
  • Stay away from areas subject to additional flooding, such as low areas, stream beds, and ditches.
  • Stay on firm ground.
  • Be especially careful at night or in dark conditions when it is harder to see flood dangers.
  • Flooded areas can be covered with debris, including nails and broken glass. Flood waters and debris may hide live animals or animal carcasses, and flood waters are often contaminated with biohazards (sewage, medical waste, animal waste and carcasses) or other hazardous materials (fuels, asbestos, farm chemicals, etc.). Wear appropriate personal protective equipment if you must come in contact with flood waters.
  • To reduce the risk of drowning, avoid working alone, and wear a Coast Guard-approved life jacket when you are working in or near flood waters.

Secure the Buildings and Utilities

Inspect, Repair, Restore Fire Protection Systems

Fire can pose a major threat to an already badly damaged flood area for several reasons: inoperative fire protection systems, hampered fire department response, inoperable firefighting water supplies, and flood-damaged fire protection systems. In addition, the presence of live electrical circuits and equipment, accumulated debris, and floating flammable liquids can increase the risk of fire. Workers and employers must therefore take extra precautions.

  • Restore fire protection systems as quickly as possible. Flood waters can rupture flammable liquid tank and piping and clean-up activities will generate large piles of debris, increasing the risk of fire
  • Examine fire protection systems for physical damage. Test sprinkler control valves to make sure they are in the “open” position. If valves are closed, check for broken or disconnected piping before you reopen them. Remove water and mud from valve pits.
  • Inspect for obstructions in yard mains and sprinkler systems.
  • Inspect supports and foundations around tanks and yard main systems; flood waters may have caused washouts.
  • Inspect and repair pumps, drivers, and controllers.
  • Replace fire extinguishers.

Inspect, Repair, and Restore Other Essential Safety Devices

  • Replace all gas control valves, electric circuit breakers, ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs), and fuses that have been under water to avoid electrocutions, explosions and fires. Even if these safety devices appear to function after being submerged in a flood, they are unfit for continued use and cannot be repaired. They may eventually fail, causing electrocutions, explosions or fires.
  • Have a qualified technician inspect other parts of gas and electric appliances that have been submerged (such as fans, motors, electric circuits, and venting systems) to ensure continued safe operation. Replace appliances as directed.
  • Replace smoke detectors and carbon monoxide (CO) alarms that have been submerged.

Ensure Fire Safety During Clean-Up and Restoration

  • Be sure that the sprinkler system is inspected and fully functional before beginning any welding or hot work.
  • Be sure to follow proper controls for welding and hot work repairs.
  • Provide at least two fire extinguishers, each with a UL rating of at least 10A, at every cleanup job.
  • Remove combustible debris as soon as possible.

Clean and Restore Electrical Equipment Properly

  • Dry flooded electrical equipment: Open equipment doors, pull out drawers, etc., to allow water to run out. Remove standing water with wet vacs. Use low pressure air to blow out trapped water. Use absorbent pads to take up water if needed.
  • Remove water from under raised floors, such as in computer rooms.
  • Unplug appliances and lamps, remove light bulbs, and remove cover plates of wall switches and outlets that got wet.
  • If local building inspection code allows you to disconnect wiring from switches and outlets, do so and throw away the switches and outlets. If your building inspector says that you cannot disconnect the wiring, pull them forward, away from the wall, and leave them connected.

Identify Damage and Begin Clean-Up of Building Contents

Document the Damage

  • Once it is safe to enter the building, make a preliminary tour of all affected areas. Wear protective clothing.
  • Do not move equipment or other objects without documenting their location and condition.
  • Use a Polaroid-type camera or video camera to record conditions of structure, equipment, and furnishings. Make sure images clearly record the damage. Supplement these with better quality photos when necessary.
  • Make notes and voice recordings to accompany the photographs.
  • Assign staff to keep written records of contacts with insurance agents and other investigators, staff decisions on retrieval and salvage, and costs associated with clean-up and salvage.
  • Make visual, written, and voice records for each step of salvage procedures.

Begin Clean-Up

After the flood waters have subsided, start to clean and disinfect the building. However, don’t work in or around any flood-damaged building until it has been examined and certified as safe for work by a qualified person.

  • Remove standing water from the facility. Use a mop, squeegee, absorbent materials, or a wet/dry vacuum cleaner.
  • Begin draining the basement in stages, about a third of the water volume each day. Pumping out water too quickly may cause structural damage.
  • Provide air movement and control humidity. Keep the building cool.
  • Remove as much mud as possible. Once you've checked the water system for leaks, hose down the inside of the building and its contents. It's best to use an attachment that sprays soap to wash and rinse the walls, floors, furniture, sockets, electrical boxes and other major items that got muddy.
  • Clean and dry flooded equipment and property (take care of the most important pieces first). Take special steps with documents and computer files.
  • Dispose of all debris properly. Follow all applicable regulations regarding hazardous wastes, disposal, and recycling. If necessary, contract with a hazardous waste firm for proper handling of hazardous materials.
  • If necessary, contract with a disaster recovery consultant to complete the necessary cleanup and restoration.

Decontaminate Buildings and Contents

  • Remove loose dirt and debris from affected surfaces, using a power hose.
  • Use a combination of household bleach (1/2 cup bleach per gallon of water) and soap or detergent to wash down walls, floors, and other contaminated areas, including exterior surfaces.
  • Keep the surface wet for 5-15 minutes.
  • Rinse thoroughly with a power hose to remove any residue. This will eliminate fungal problems and their dangers.
  • Follow directions on containers and take particular note of warnings. Do not mix cleaning compounds containing ammonia with bleach.
  • Remove heating and cooling registers and ducts, then hose the ducts to prevent contamination from circulating through the ducts at a later date. After hosing duct work, wash with a disinfectant or sanitizer that is phenolic or pine-oil based. If ducts are in concrete or otherwise inaccessible, have them cleaned professionally.
  • Discard clothing, carpets, upholstered furniture, and similar items if they cannot be cleaned and disinfected.
  • Take immediate action to minimize the growth of molds and fungi.
    • Inventory all flooded areas so that every water-damaged area is identified, treated, and cleaned.
    • Remove and dispose of all wet ceiling tiles and drywall within 24 hours of water contact.
    • Remove and replace all drywall and insulation up to 12 inches above the water line.
    • Dry all wet light fixtures.
    • Replace water-damaged furniture, including wood, or clean it with a 10% bleach solution. (Note: be sure to verify that bleach will not discolor or damage surfaces before application. When in doubt, test in a small hidden area before general application.) Discard furniture made of or with particle board or pressed board. Treat fabrics as you would carpeting (see below).
    • Leave all cabinets and drawers open to facilitate air flow for drying. Treat surfaces of cabinets and drawers with the dilute bleach solution.
    • Remove and discard all non-essential wet files and paper. Remove essential paper to a location where it can be dried, photocopied, and discarded. If a large amount of paper cannot be dried within 24 hours, rinse essential files with clean water and freeze them temporarily until proper drying can take place. (Freezing will prevent mold growth.)
    • Immediately remove as much water as possible from wet carpeting, using a water vacuum.
    • After wet vacuuming, shampoo the carpet with a 10% bleach solution twice within a thirty minute period. Begin shampooing immediately after wet vacuuming. Spot test an inconspicuous area before proceeding.
    • Rinse the carpet with clear water to remove the bleach, and ensure that the carpet is totally dry within 12-24 hours of treatment.
    • If the carpet fades with the bleach solution, then dry the carpet immediately and treat it with an alternate biocide. Consult a public health official, microbiologist, or industrial hygienist to determine the right biocide.
    • When any form of biocide (including bleach) is used, increase air circulation and ventilation.
    • Use dehumidifiers and air conditioning to speed the drying process.
    • If odors or complaints of health effects exist after the clean up, consult an industrial hygienist or environmental microbiologist to determine the need for bioaerosol testing.
Sources
  • American Red Cross (www.redcross.org)
  • Environmental Protection Agency (www.epa.gov)
  • Federal Emergency Management Agency (www.fema.gov)
  • National Electrical Manufacturers Association (www.nema.org)
  • National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health (www.cdc.gov/niosh/flood.html)
  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration (www.osha.gov)
  • Public Risk Management Association (www.primacentral.org)

Disclaimer

The information provided in these materials is of a general nature, based on certain assumptions. The content of these materials may omit certain details and cannot be regarded as advice that would be applicable to all businesses. As such, this information is provided for informational purposes only. Readers seeking resolution of specific safety, legal or business issues or concerns regarding this topic should consult their safety consultant, attorney or business advisors. The background presented is not a substitute for a thorough loss control survey of your business or operations or an analysis of the legality or appropriateness of your business practices. The information provided should not be considered legal advice.

The Hartford does not warrant that the information of any view or recommendation contained herein will: (i) result in the elimination of any unsafe conditions at your business locations or with respect to your business operations; or (ii) will be an appropriate legal or business practice. Further, The Hartford does not warrant that the implementation of any view or recommendation will result in compliance with any health, fire or safety standards or codes, or any local, state, or federal ordinance, regulation, statute or law including, but not limited to, any nationally recognized life, building or fire safety code or any state or federal privacy or employment law.) The Hartford assumes no responsibility for the control or correction of hazards or legal compliance with respect to your business practices, and the views and recommendations contained herein shall not constitute our undertaking, on your behalf, or for the benefit of others, to determine or warrant that your business premises, locations, operations or practices are safe or healthful, or are in compliance with any law, rule or regulation. Possession of these materials by a licensed insurance producer does not mean that such producer is an authorized agent of The Hartford. To ascertain whether a producer is a Hartford agent please contact your state’s Department of Insurance or The Hartford at 1-888-203-3823.

The NAW Service Corporation receives compensation from The Hartford for NAW's endorsement and promotion of the commercial insurance products and services of The Hartford. NAW and NAW Service Corporation are not licensed insurance producers or agents of The Hartford. All Hartford insurance products and services are sold through licensed producers or independent agents of The Hartford.

©2007 The Hartford Financial Services Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reprinted, transmitted or otherwise reproduced or disseminated by any means, including electronically.