How to Protect Workers in Flooded Areas

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Storm and flood clean-up activities can be hazardous.  Workers and volunteers involved with storm and flood clean-up should be aware of the potential dangers and proper safety precautions involved with these activities.  The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has urged employers and workers to take appropriate safety measures to avoid injury and illnesses associated with the recovery and clean-up efforts.

A disaster recovery site is likely to have multiple workforces on-site, which include host employees, clean-up and construction contractors, and general labor workers.  The recovery site must have an incident commander and a command structure in place to coordinate recovery efforts safely.  All safety and health conditions must be assessed under the direction of the incident commander.  The incident commander must be identified and have authority over the site’s health and safety system.  The professional in this role will have direct authority and responsibility to protect workers from occupational and environmental hazards on-site.

Some of these hazards include:  Electrical Hazards, Carbon Monoxide, Musculoskeletal Hazards, Heat Stress, Motor Vehicles, Hazardous Materials, Fire, Confined Spaces, and Falls.  In addition, floodwater often contains infectious organisms, including intestinal bacteria such as E. coli, Salmonella, and Shigella, Hepatitis A Virus, and agents of typhoid, paratyphoid, and tetanus.  Exposure is mostly through ingesting contaminated food or water but can also occur from contaminated soil or water entering broken areas of the skin, such as cuts, abrasions, or puncture wounds.  This can result in similar signs and symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, muscle aches, and fever.

Human remains may also contain bloodborne viruses such as hepatitis, HIV, and bacteria that cause diarrheal diseases, such as shigella and salmonella.  There is, however, no risk of infectious diseases from being near human remains for people who are not directly handling dead bodies.                                   

Pools of standing or stagnant water become breeding grounds for mosquitoes, increasing the risk of encephalitis, West Nile Virus, or other mosquito-borne diseases.  The presence of wild animals in populated areas increases the risk of diseases caused by animal bites (e.g., rabies) as well as diseases carried by fleas and ticks.

Workers should be advised to drink plenty of fluid and to monitor their bodies for symptoms of heat stress such as red, hot, and dry skin without sweating, headaches, dizziness, nausea, having a strong pulse, and an elevated body temperature (>103F).  Workers should be given access to a shaded shelter and allowed to remove excess protecting clothing if needed.  Protective equipment selection should be light-color and lightweight, and products such as alcohol, caffeinated drinks, or heavy meals should be avoided.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Department of Health and Human Services, have issued “Immunization Recommendations for Disaster Responders: Updated vaccination recommendations for persons responding to the disaster area are posted on CDC’s website at:

Required Immunizations:

About 75-80% of adults who have received two valid vaccine doses have developed a protective antibody level.  Standard precautions to protect against exposure to blood or blood-containing fluids should be used.  If a responder who is not fully vaccinated comes into contact with blood or body fluids, post-exposure precautions should be taken according to previously published CDC and OSHA recommendations.

Based on the low probability of exposure in the flooded regions, the CDC does not anticipate the need for the following vaccinations for relief workers or emergency responders:

Hepatitis A vaccine: Even though the water and sewage systems are damaged or out of operation in many areas along the Gulf Coast, the risk of the Hepatitis A epidemic is extremely low.  The vaccine will take at least one to two weeks to provide substantial immunity.

Personal Hygiene

Workers should assume that any water in flooded or surrounding areas is not safe unless the local or state authorities have specifically declared it to be safe.  To avoid waterborne disease, it is important to wash hands with soap and clean, running water, especially before work breaks, meal breaks, and at the end of the work shift.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Physical injuries were a source of most injuries following Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

OSHA’s personal protective equipment standards (29 CFR 1910.132-138) require employers to furnish and require employees to use suitable protective equipment where there is a “reasonable probability” that injury can be prevented by such equipment.  The standards also set provisions for specific equipment.  For more information, refer to the IBT Safety and Health Fact Sheet: Protect Yourself with Personal Protective Equipment.

Workers and volunteers involved with flood clean-up should avoid direct skin contact with flood waters if possible and use appropriate PPE and clothing.  In most instances, the selection of PPE will be dependent on site-specific conditions, hazards, and tasks; the list below provides interim guidance by the CDC on PPE and clothing for flood response workers responding to disasters.

Hand Protection (29 CFR 1910.138)

Foot Protection (29 CFR 1910.136)

Eye and Face Protection (29 CFR 1910.133)

Body Protection (29 CFR 1910.132)

Respiratory Protection (29 CFR 1910.135)

Respiratory Protection should be worn to protect against breathing dust containing asbestos, silica, and other toxins, potential chemical exposures.

OSHA’s standard for Respiratory Protection (29 CFR 1910.134) states that respirators should be provided by the employer when such equipment is necessary to protect the employee’s health.  The employer should provide the respirators which are applicable and suitable for the purpose intended.  Under some work conditions, NIOSH-approved respirators may be necessary (e.g., for exposures to mold-contaminated materials/environments or other recognized chemical, physical, or biological hazards).

For more information, see IBT Safety and Health Fact Sheet, Respiratory Protection.

Head Protection (29 CFR 1910.135)

Hearing Protection (29 CR 1910.95)

Fall Protection


Clean-up Hazards.  Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Department of Labor.

United States Department of Labor.  Hurricane Preparedness and Response – OSHA Resources | Occupational Safety and Health Administration.  (n.d.).  Retrieved September 30, 2022

Flood Clean-up. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Department of Labor, 9/2005.

Fact Sheet on Heat Safety.  Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Department of Labor

Keeping Workers Safe During Clean Up and Recovery Operations Following Hurricanes.  Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Department of Labor.

Protect Yourself with Personal Protective Equipment.  Safety and Health Fact Sheet.  IBT Safety and Health Department.

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UAW Health & Safety Department.  (2005).  Hurricane Disaster Response Factsheet (pp. 1–6).  Detroit, MI.

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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  (n.d.).  Hurricanes & Floods.  National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.  Retrieved September 30, 2022, from