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After the Floods

23 October 2007

Fungal growth as a consequence of water damage

Over the last decade – particularly this year - there has been unprecedented flooding across the country. As Mark Carter explains, inundations will happen again with consequential health and safety implications staff and buildings following flood or water damage

MORE THAN £3BN IS THE FIGURE QUOTED in the press for the cost of the floods in the ‘summer’ of 2007. This huge figure refers to just the insurance and total losses and does not cover many of the personal, economic and remedial costs. But lets not forget that flooding does not happen just when it rains. Fire sprinklers, burst pipes and plumbing work can all result in flooding and water damage. Statistically you are more likely to suffer damage from these sources than from persistent rainfall.

Regardless of the source of the water, many of the problems caused remain the same.

Of those businesses affected by a major incident such as severe flooding, 80 per cent close within 18 months.

How FMs deal with the aftermath can significantly affect the whole organisation. It is not just the requirement for operational continuity that needs to be urgently addressed, there are also considerable health and safety implications to buildings following flood or water damage. These can be both in the immediate period after the flood and in the longer term. Failure to adequately meet these issues can have serious consequences, both in continuing remedial costs and the viability of the organisation. In addition, some can endanger human life.

In the time straight after a flood there are the obvious physical risks associated with excess water that will always need to be considered. The most immediate and potentially dangerous include:

● Avoiding electrocution risks. Where possible turn off the electricity supply and /or ensure all electrical breakers are properly isolated.

● Ensuring any electrical goods that have come into contact with water or are located in the vicinity of the flood and may have become damp, are not used unless properly checked by a qualified electrician

● When working in flooded areas take care to avoid injury from hidden objects beneath the surface that are not immediately visible.

● Wherever possible try to avoid direct contact with flood water. This is particularly pertinent where the inundation does not come from a ‘clean’ source such as a burst pipe. Water from general flooding (from rivers and sewer overflow often contains significant contamination.

If you do come into contact with floodwater, ensure you have the proper personal protective equipment. It is worth reviewing where this equipment is stored when not in use. Infrequently used, bulky and unattractive kit often seems to find a home in the basement and lower levels of the building, thus becoming inaccessible or unusable when needed.

● Ensure all the personal protective equipment is suitably cleaned and disinfected after use.

● If anything has come into contact with the flood water make sure it is properly cleaned and disinfected.

● Throw away any food or drink that may be contaminated and anything else that may be too difficult to properly disinfect.

● Ensure no open wounds are exposed to flood water and properly wash hands and any other exposed areas, especially before handling food or drink.

The period after the water has gone raises a different set of health and safety concerns. Although the immediate risk has literally receded, this time is still potentially very hazardous. High levels of vigilance often fall in line with the level of water, but alternative and very real hazards increase.

During this time you should ensure:
● If petrol or diesel generators, dehumidifiers, pressure washers or other equipment is used in the drying and remedial processes, these spaces are adequately ventilated. This is especially relevant if working in enclosed areas like basements.

● Also ensure proper fire precautions are considered, including evacuation procedures from these areas, particularly if they are not usually occupied.

● If using pressure washers beware of the risks of breathing in water droplets. Along with any tiny cuts and scrapes, this is a potential route to infection with Weil's disease (Leptospirosis). There is also a suggestion that the bacteria can pass through very waterlogged skin (such as when skin is immersed in water for a long time).

● Ensure you follow the advice of local water companies and the Health Protection Agency regarding drinking water from the mains supply. The recent flooding in Tewkesbury saw no drinkable water come through the pipes for over 10 days AFTER the supply was re-connected.

● Ensure any domestic services that have been contaminated are free of such contamination before being used for washing or food preparation purposes. This may require the services to be cleaned and chlorinated prior to re-use.

● In areas of hard water, where water softeners have been fitted to the domestic system, check for possible contamination of both the unit and supplies.

● Beware of any potential hazards from chemicals either stored on your site or located close to your site that may have contaminated the flood water.

● Be conscious of where any flood water is discharged. The waste may have become contaminated by chemicals stored in the flooded area, and be potentially detrimental to the environment.

● Ensure all workers involved in remediation follow a strict no smoking rule while working on the site.

Perhaps the most crucial stage for health and safety is following on from the initial clean-up period. It is during this time that other, more insidious risks can become manifest. These have potentially longer-term repercussions if consideration is not given to taking an appropriate and timely approach. Careful attention should be paid to identifying the hazards and assessing the risk as these issues can affect not only those exposed during the cleaning operation, but personnel throughout the building.

Therefore it is vital you should ensure that all areas that were flooded are properly and fully dried out. This must include making sure there is adequate venting during the process. This should help prevent such things as fungal growth. Mould becomes more prevalent in environments with high levels of humidity or dampness. It feeds on organic material such as cellulose, (found in wood), wallpaper, plasterboard, and also carpets and even the rubber underlay. It has been described as eating into plaster and brickwork.

Toxic mould
If toxic mould is detected in your building, it could potentially be classified as a hazardous substance under the Control Of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations. This would mean that the employer would be liable if an employee were exposed to the mould and suffered any ill effects. There are health risks associated with specific species such as Aspergillus and toxic moulds. Other potential risks include:

● parasitic such as Cryptosporidia (causing severe diarrhoea, fever and vomiting with symptoms normally lasting for one to three weeks);

● rare potential infectious outbreaks from enteric bacteria, including the causes of cholera, typhoid and dysentery, and

● life threatening viral infections such as hepatitis.

These clearly highlight the need to take effective cleaning, disinfecting and drying actions wherever such flood contamination has occurred. It is worth noting that there will also be a tendency to see an increase in medical problems in any population exposed to flood water. This will encompass illnesses ranging from skin rashes due to exposure to irritants, chemicals and stress, earache, gastroenteritis, asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Further advice and guidance can be found from the Health Protection Agency, or via NHS Direct for specific health advice.

This is not an exhaustive review of dealing with the consequences of flooding. However, businesses that recover quickly tend to be those that have planned in advance. Consequently, it is important to develop and maintain an adequate recovery plan ahead of any potential disaster. As with many specialist areas in FM, expert help often provides a simple and cost-effective solution to the health, safety and environmental issues of surviving “after the flood”.

● Mark Carter is Marketing Manager at ems Email Here

Link: EMS Online

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