Insurance losses present a new set of challenges to adjusters, contractors, and the insured every day. Flood and water damage losses are no different. Whether damage is caused by a sewer back-up, burst pipe, or significant rainfall, the event will be highly emotional for the insured, often traumatic. People are distracted by the emotion of the event. The insureds may be emotional because of the disruption in their lives, and the adjuster and contractor as they strive to return the insureds’ lives back to normal. In the process, distractions can occur and there are hazards present that people don’t often think about. By having a good understanding of hazards prior to attending a loss, adjusters and contractors can be better prepared, greatly reducing the risks of health and safety when working on site.
These hazards can include:
- Electrical (Electric shock (water), downed power lines)
- Gas leaks
- Sewage (Salmonella, Giardia, Cryptosporidium, E. coli and Hepatitis to name a few)
- Structural damage (Sagging ceilings, wall or floor cracks, walls out of plumb)
- Unstable materials (Furniture and contents can be stacked in dangerous positions within the building)
- Chemical spills (Paints, solvents, fertilizers, pesticides, oil, etc.)
Electrical Hazards and Gas Leaks
The Electrical Safety Authority (ESA) recommends the following precautions regarding electricity in a flood impacted home:
- Do not enter your basement if you know or suspect water has risen above the level of electrical outlets, baseboard heaters, and furnace or is near your electrical panel. Electricity can move through water or wet flooring and cause a severe electrical shock.
- In the event that flood water has risen above outlets, baseboard heaters or your furnace, covers power cords, or is near the electrical panel, contact your local electric utility immediately and arrange for them to disconnect power to your home.
- Watch out for downed powerlines in flood-affected areas. If you see one, stay back 10 metres or the length of a school bus and call 9-1-1 and your local electric utility to report it.
Electrical safety following a flood is very important as electricity can move through water or wet flooring. Before entering the building, confirm if utilities should be shut off and locked. Gas leaks could also be possible.
Raw sewage poses a hazard to all who enter into a loss brought about by a sewage back up or flooding caused by groundwater. Groundwater can pick up contaminants as it goes across the landscape. The Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Certification (IICRC) recommends anyone who works at sewage losses must have updated vaccinations, including one for Hepatitis B. Adjusters and contractors should discuss immunizations with their doctor if they are going to be attending sewage losses
Sewage after a flood event can create a host of biological hazards for cleanup crews and adjusters. Escherichia coli (E. coli), Shigella, and Salmonella - may cause diarrhea, fever, cramps, and sometimes vomiting, headache, weakness, or loss of appetite. The elevated humidity may cause Aspergillus and other Fungi to grow. These can cause allergic symptoms (such as runny nose) and can sometimes lead to lung infection or make asthma worse. If you have other health problems, you may be more likely to get sick from Aspergillus. Parasites including Cryptosporidium and Giardia Lamblia may cause diarrhea and stomach cramps, and even nausea or a slight fever.
When entering a site contaminated with raw sewage, select appropriate PPE to minimize contact or exposure to sewage and potential pathological hazards. This will also minimize the chances of cross contaminating your home with pathogens. It is very important to practice good hygiene on site.
- Boots, gloves, safety glasses, Tyvek suit / chest waders, and respiratory protection are all mandatory.
- Wash your hands well with clean water and soap before you eat, smoke, get into your car, and after work.
- Do not touch your nose, mouth, eyes, or ears with your hands, unless you have just washed. Most of the time, people get these diseases when they have germs on their hands and they touch their mouth or nose or eyes.
- Always wear gloves when your hands are chapped or burned or you have a rash or a cut. Shower and change out of your work clothes before you leave work to help avoid contaminating additional areas or people. Do not keep your soiled work clothes with your other clothes. Report any injury or illness you think you got from work to your employer right away.
After catastrophic flood situations when adjusters and contractors are stretched, delaying initial inspections and emergency work for weeks, mould growth becomes a serious issue for all involved.
Mould primarily affects the respiratory system but can also affect the eyes and skin. PPE for areas containing mould would be:
- A full mask respirator (for eye and respiratory protection)
- A Tyvek or similar suit with a hood worn over the respirator (worn at least 1 size larger than street clothes to prevent tearing)
- Rubber safety boots or safety boots with covers
- Nitrile gloves
Note: Most people leave an area that requires respiratory protection and immediately remove their respirator. The respirator should be removed after the suit is removed and disposed of. This is to ensure contaminants that are on the suit do not enter the wearer’s respiratory system.
After extreme flooding caused by rivers and hurricanes, make sure the building is structurally safe. Look for buckled walls or floors. Watch for holes in the floor, broken glass and other potentially dangerous debris. Structural integrity is a concern that anyone entering a home or building after a flood should be concerned with. Both wind and water from a storm can cause significant damage to a structure. Sagging ceilings, cracked walls or floors, damaged foundations, and compromised walls can create a host of hazards for those who enter. If unsure of a building’s stability, consult a qualified builder or structural engineer for an inspection.
Depending on the amount of damage, numerous trip and fall hazards can be created by contents strewn throughout the building. In some cases with enough water volume, furniture may have been pushed and stacked awkwardly towards one side of building. Be cautious when repositioning contents, removing materials, and when navigating throughout rooms. Standing water may hide holes, pits and trenches in floors. This is of particular concern in commercial and industrial buildings. Use great caution when walking in standing water you are unfamiliar with.
Another hazard to be on the lookout for is the risk of chemicals mixed with flood waters. Flood waters may have moved containers of hazardous products from their regular storage locations. People entering a flooded area can be exposed to everyday items including reactive household cleaners, such as chlorine bleach or caustic drain cleaners. Paints, solvents, fertilizers and pesticides may also spill in or near a home during an emergency. On a larger scale, industrial chemicals, oils, and fuels can easily contaminate water during a loss. The services of an environmental consultant and contractor may be required.
By having a good understanding of hazards prior to attending a loss, adjusters and contractors can be better prepared, greatly reducing the risks of health and safety when working on site. While the immediate focus may be on the need to support the insured, safe practices and awareness of hazards are critical when attending flood and water damage insurance losses.
STRONE and Itech disclaim any liability or risk resulting from the use of the work practices and recommendations discussed in the article. It is the reader’s responsibility to ensure that these apply to the specific workplaces and to ensure compliance with all other applicable federal, provincial and local acts and regulations. The reader must determine the hazards present on any sites they may attend.