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Department & Division News

Hurricane Katrina Safety and Health Update

Safety and health in the wake of a natural disaster is a major concern. The storm and subsequent flooding in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana has and will continue to place postal workers in dangerous environments for many month to come. These dangers will be present not only at work but in other public places and at home. The following information is provided to heighten your level of awareness and provide some basic guidelines for protective measures you should take.

The danger of a flood does not end when the rain stops and the water recedes. Cleanup workers and emergency responders will be exposed to numerous hazards. Workers should have received training specific to the hazards they will be exposed to, and precautions must be taken to place the safety of these worker above all else.

During the recovery and cleanup efforts it is important that even minor cuts and burns be treated immediately. First-aid services and qualified first-aid personnel must be readily available.

General safety precautions, including the proper training and use of personal protective equipment (PPE) is required to reduce the risk of injury during workers’ exposure to hazards. At a minimum, PPE should include protective eyewear, heavy work gloves, and watertight boots. Dependent upon the tasks being performed, additional protective clothing and hearing protection may be necessary.

Electrical hazards can result not just from downed power lines but from generators used as temporary power supplies. Qualified personnel should perform inspections that rule out the presence of electrical hazards. If you observe a potential electrical hazard or are unsure whether a wire is electrically charged, you should stop work until it is verified that the hazard does not exist.

Carbon Monoxide from equipment such as generators may pose an invisible hazard. In fact, this gas is virtually impossible to detect without specialized equipment – gas- and diesel-powered equipment should be used only in well-ventilated areas.

Heat stress is a major concern during cleanup operations. Excessive exposure to hot environments can cause heat exhaustion, heat cramps, fainting, and heat stroke, To reduce the likelihood of these problems, workers should drink fluids every 15 to 20 minutes, wear light, loose-fitting clothing and incorporate work-rest cycles into their tasks. If possible, work should be scheduled only during the cooler part of the day..

During the cleanup efforts it is expected that there will be hazards associated with theoperation of heavy equipment. Operators not only should be properly trained, but others working in the area must be vigilant to protect themselves.

Hazardous materials and chemicals may be ever-present. A “toxic stew” created by the mingling of flood waters and chemicals from any number of damaged sources can be created almost anywhere. Workers should not attempt to move chemical containers until they are certain as to their contents and have been assured that the contents are stable. Workers must utilize PPE to avoid chemical contact with skin and eyes, and to avoid inhalation of fumes. Training specific to the hazards must be provided.

The structural integrity of buildings must be evaluated prior to entry. Qualified individuals should examine the entire building to determine if it is safe for workers to proceed with cleanup activities. Do not enter a structure that you are uncertain about, or that is adjacent to one that appears could collapse.

Ergonomic hazards will exist in every phase of the cleanup effort. Everyone must pay special attention to proper lifting and handling techniques.

Fires are a major risk during cleanup efforts. Fire equipment itself may be damaged and inoperative, and the response ability of fire departments is sure to be taxed by other missions. Limited water supplies add to the danger. Every work team should have fire suppression equipment and be specially trained in the hazards and the use of the equipment. As part of the cleanup effort, a site-specific emergency action plan should spell out the procedures to follow in the event of a fire.

The risks of drowning, even after waters appear to have receded may be present in anything from an underground utility pit or sink hole, to a waterlogged basement. Regardless of your skill at swimming, you are at risk of drowning. Avoid driving or wading into water of unknown depth. Federal safety guidelines recommend that you never work alone in or near flood waters and that you wear a Coast Guard-approved life jacket when doing so.

Snakes and other animals can pose significant dangers. Be observant and give them a wide berth, and follow emergency guidelines on what to do when you encounter animals. Biting insects flourish in flooded areas -- special precautions should be taken, including the use of high-quality repellants.

Fatigue caused by working long hours under difficult condition increases the chance of injury or illness. Be aware of your own physical and emotional conditions and seek advice or assistance when in doubt.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health suggests that the most important thing to do if you are involved in a flood cleanup effort is to pace yourself and to try not to disrupt your basic metabolism:

  • Set priorities for cleanup tasks, and follow a plan that allows you to do the work at a steady rate over several days or weeks;
  • Take frequent rest breaks before exhaustion can build up – try to maintain a normal sleep schedule or resume one as quickly as possible.
  • Be alert to emotional exhaustion or strain. When family members and neighbors are unavailable for emotional support, consult professionals at community health and mental health centers.