How to deal with cleaning up after a major hurricane
Everyone’s first priority when natural disasters and severe weather strikes is safety. Safety is the number one concern before, during and after catastrophic events. In the past several months, the U.S. and its territories have been hit by three major hurricanes, causing significant damage in the South.
In this issue of SERVICES Magazine, we are going to look at the impact hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria had on the southern U.S. and aggregate some of the best tips to help you deal with work in the aftermath. By examining these recent events, we hope to provide you with the advice and tools you need in the cleaning service industry, including: how to deal with excess moisture, flood damage repair, mold prevention and remediation and dehumidifying.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have outlined general safety tips for first responders and clean-up workers. We will be exploring the most up-to-date information specific to the South and each of the three major hurricanes.
Before cleanup even begins, make sure you have the proper gear, including: hard hats, goggles, work gloves, waterproof and steel-toe and insole shoes, ear protection and fire extinguishers. Additionally, the CDC recommends using rubber boots and rubber gloves if sewage is involved in your cleanup.
It is important that you and your employee work in teams. The CDC recommends that two or more people should lift heavy objects and that any one on the worksite should avoid lifting material that is greater than 50 pounds alone.
Hurricanes Irma, Harvey and Maria caused great distress and it is important that you and your team pace yourselves when dealing with all of the tasks involved in repairing and restoring. Taking adequate breaks, prioritizing cleanup tasks and working in teams can help alleviate feeling overwhelmed in any natural disaster situation.
Here in the South, staying safe in hot weather is always a concern. However, after the hurricanes, many areas experienced extended power outages. Try to stay cool by taking those frequent breaks in shaded areas or cool rooms, hydrating and wearing light and loose-fitting clothing.
If possible, schedule tasks that you anticipate being in the hottest locations during the cooler hours of the day.
Once the storm has passed, many workers find themselves in the midst of the flood and its aftermath. As always, it is important to emphasize that safety comes first in these situations.
The CDC recommends all workers in flood areas wear hard hats, goggles, heavy-duty work gloves and watertight boots with a steel toe and insole. Hazards presented by floods include jagged debris, floodwater exposure, electrical hazards, contact with bodily fluids or human and animal remains and slick or unstable surfaces, the CDC says.
The risk of being injured may be increased during flood cleanup, and because of this, all workers should be up-to-date with their tetanus vaccine. Being up-to-date on this vaccine will greatly simplify treatment if a wound should occur.
If you or your employees find yourselves working in flood cleanup, it is also important to immediately clean all wounds and burns and to speak to on-site health professionals if you have concerns.
Don’t forget about hearing safety. Excessive noise from clean-up equipment, which can include chainsaws, pavement breakers, blowers and dryers could cause tinnitus and hearing damage. The CDC recommends operating under this rule of thumb: if you have to shout over noise to be heard, wear ear protection.
Floodwater can contain dangerous bacteria from overflowing sewage and agricultural and industrial waste, according to the CDC. In addition to having you and your workers updated on their tetanus vaccine, it is also important to make sure to not eat or drink anything contaminated with the flood water.
While the day may be hot, always be aware of what temperature the water is that you’re working in if you're working in standing water. Water cooler that 75 degrees requires insulated clothes, insulated rubber boots and frequent breaks out of the water, according to the CDC.
Perhaps one of the biggest concerns when working in cleaning in a flooded zone is electrical hazards. Even if you and your team are only working inside your clients’ buildings, keep in mind that electrical circuits and equipment could have gotten wet. Make sure the power has been turned off. If there is standing water between you and accessing an electrical switch, then this is the job for an electrician. As a general rule of thumb, when cleaning for your clients who have standing water in their building, do not use electric tools or appliances.
The dangers of working in a flood area are numerous. From increased risk of injury, to electrical hazards, infectious diseases, heat stress, hazardous materials and the stress of working in these situations - it is important to take all necessary and available precautions when cleaning and restoring affected areas.
Mold Prevention & Remediation
While not always possible after a storm, it is recommended that buildings are cleaned and dried within 24 to 48 hours after the storm if possible, according to the CDC. Assume that anything touched by floodwater after hurricanes is contaminated with mold.
Visual inspections and moisture assessment are the key steps before beginning your work. This includes checking all ventilation systems for damp filters or other damp conditions to avoid spreading mold through the building. Do not run any HVAC system suspected of being contaminated as well, according to the CDC.
If parts of the HVAC system have been submerged in floodwaters, these areas may contain dirt, debris and mold, according to the CDC. All workers should wear PPE that includes an N-95 respirator when evaluating and working in these systems.
"You and your team should do your best to air out the building you are working in by opening doors and windows and positioning fans to blow air out of them. During your drying efforts, it is also important to discard anything that will not dry quickly."
It is important to remove all contaminated insulation and filters. While the HVAC system remains off, clean the system with a HEPA-filtered vacuum paying special attention to filter racks, drain pans, bends and horizontal sections of the system, according to the CDC. Your team can then begin the disinfection activities.
Equipment you can use in the assessment of your clients’ space includes moisture meters, humidity meters and borescopes. You should also use wet mops or vacuums with HEPA filters in lieu of dry sweeping dust and debris to eliminate excess exposure to dust.
The next step in a situation where there have been floods is immediately stopping water intrusion. This will allow you to deal with the problems that have already been caused, instead of worrying about continuing damage that may be occurring.
You and your team should do your best to air out the building you are working in by opening doors and windows and positioning fans to blow air out of them.
During your drying efforts, it is also important to discard anything that will not dry quickly such as carpeting, carpet padding, rugs, upholstered furniture, foamrubber items, books, wall covers and paper products, the CDC says.
This is also the time to remove drywall and insulation that has been affected by flood waters or sewage. Another important step in further mold prevention and remediation is addressing any leaks in roofs, walls or plumbing.
Making a list of tasks to do can often make a very large undertaking seem less overwhelming. By listing out recommendations for steps to take for moisture control and mold remediation, we hope to provide you with an easy way to keep track of what needs to be done after a natural disaster.
Once you have assessed your client’s building, have aired it and have thrown away anything that cannot be dried quickly, the CDC recommends cleaning all wet items and surfaces with hot water and a detergent. This includes flooring, concrete, molding, wood, metal furniture, countertops, appliances and plumping fixtures.
Remember when dealing with mold to wear personal protective equipment for your eyes, nose, mouth and skin. This includes a N-95 respirator, especially when handling bleach.
If possible, fix any leaks in the roof, walls or plumbing as soon as you can. Putting in maximum effort to prevent further moisture will ensure you will help eliminate the possibility of a recurring problem.
Treating and preventing excessive moisture in the buildings you service will prevent and eliminate the growth of mold and other bacteria. It will also help keep you, your clients and your team safe as exposure to excess mold has been linked to asthma, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, rhinosinusitis, bronchitis and respiratory infections, according to the CDC.
Carbon Monoxide & Dangerous Materials
The key to safety in the BSC industry is obtaining the knowledge to prevent someone from getting hurt. Being on the frontline for the cleanup work sometimes means being the first people to enter the building. The CDC recommends never using gasoline, propane, natural gas or charcoal-burning devices inside to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.
If you or your team comes across chemicals, propane tanks or other dangerous materials, always call the fire department for inspection before continuing your work.
Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria
These devastating natural disasters in the South have left millions without their homes or place of work. Even if you are not responding first to a disaster, any cleanup efforts you and your company does are vitally important to restoring these communities.